Employee activists are a good thing: one more reason to encourage workers to use social media

Posted on April 10, 2014 1:24 pm by | Internal | Research | Social Media

Employee activists onlineBack in December, when UPS’s Facebook page was the target of blistering comments from customers who didn’t get their deliveries by Christmas, many employees dove into the conversation, leaping to their employer’s defense. “I’m a driver,” wrote Larry Ledet, “Got off at 10:10 last night, 60hr weeks, I’m tired, Mother Nature, a booming economy and no one visiting malls any more cause this…no reason 4 anyone to be mad…Merry Christmas.” That was just one example.

Ledet was able to participate in the conversation without worrying about the effect on his employment because UPS has a clear social media policy that encourages employees to engage. That kind of encouragement—accompanied by the guardrails at the heart of every good social media policy—just makes good sense. In the U.S., the National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly found policies that attempt to stifle employees’ work-related online conversations unlawful. The NLRB has made it impossible to include clauses in policies that prevent employees from talking about work.

Rather than lament a perceived loss of control, employers should rejoice, then craft policies, programs and processes that make it easier for employees to share insights and information about their companies. According to new research from the PR agency Weber Shandwick, social media has given rise to “employee activism.”

That’s not the best label, since it’s likely leaders will conjure images of employees rising up in revolt. The research suggest exactly the oppopsite. “Employee activists draw visibility to their workplace, defend their employers from criticism and act as advocates, both online and off,” according to a press release.

Some 20% of your workforce fits this category—roughly equal to the percentage of engaged employees in the U.S., according to Gallup. Even more encouraging, 33% of employees are on the precipice, what the report calls preactives; it wouldn’t take much to nudge them into activism.

Chart from Weber Shandwick report

“As the movement grows at an increasing speed, employers have an enormous opportunity to engage and capitalize on these powerful advocates,” the study announcement says. Micho Spring, Weber Shandwick’s Global Corporate practice chair, adds that “Identifying and activating employees willing to rise to levels of extraordinary support for their organizations should certainly be an important priority for CEOs.”

The Weber Shandwick report is welcome news amidst a flurry of reports of employee dissatisfaction and disaffection. Huge numbers of employees. One in five workers will quit their jobs this year, according to the results of a CareerBuilder survey, and I recently saw a report that said half of American workers would abandon the corporate world for some other kind of work if they could.

Still, too many employers fear social media in their employees’ hands rather than activating those who want to help. The study—Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism—found only about one-third of companies encourage their employees to share news and information about their companies, despite the fact that employees in those 33% of companies “are significantly more likely to help boost sales than employees whose employers aren’t socially encouraging (72% vs. 48% respectively).

In many cases, those workers already are advocating on behalf of the organization whether company policies support them or not:

  • 50% post messages, pictures or videos in social media about their employer
  • 39% have shared praise or positive comments online about their employer
  • 33% post messages, pictures or videos in social media about their employer without any encouragement from the employer
  • 16% have shared criticism or negative comments online about their employer
  • 14% have posted something about their employer in social media that they regret

Those last two bullets represent the fear that grips some leaders. Those numbers pale beside those who have posted something positive or neutral. And remember, you may not have a choice but to allow those negative posts.

It’s not impossible to shrink those numbers. The study also points to opportunities to increase the population of activist and primed-for-activism employees. Consider that only 42% agreed with the statement, “I know enough to explain to others what my employers does”—and that’s the highest-scoring of the statements. Only 37% said they un dersatnd their employers’ goals and 25% agreed their employer does a good job of keeping them informed. Top leaders and senior leaders were rated lousy at communication, with only 17% of employees rating their communication high. Immediate supervisors fared a little better, with 31% saying they communicated well.

Imagine how many employee activists would be out raising the company’s profile, improving its reputation, attracting top job candidates and generating sales if those numbers improved.

Building engagement takes time. Activating employees already sitting on the edge of their seats can happen much more quickly. There are plenty of case studies and examples from companies that are doing just that. They provide training and resources. They offer ready-made tweets, images and videos to share. They encourage subject matter experts to join in relevant conversations. They offer ambassador programs.

It’s not like employers actually needed evidence of employee activism to convince them that employees engaged in social media is a good—make that great—idea. We know, for example, that productivity among information workers can improve as much as 25% thanks to time saved looking for information and solutions. Another 10-15% gain in productivity comes from prolonging concentration levels by letting employees visit Facebook or Twitter as an “unobtrusive break.” We know that decision-makers make better and faster decisions when they can test their ideas with their social media peeer groups. The list of reasons to encourage employees to talk about work via social channels gets longer all the time.

Employers that muster excuses for continuing to discourage employees from using social media for work-related purposes are destined to suffer as their smarter competitors reap the rewards that are increasingly apparent. There’s hardly an employer on Earth that doesn’t proclaim their employees are their greatest asset. Those that turn those words into action will win.



  • 1.Employee activists are more than just engaged employees. They make their engagement visible, defend their employers from criticism and act as advocates, both online and off.

    Z-thru | April 2014

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