The Blessing/Curse of Social Media

Anyone who’s been following coverage of Tropical Storm Harvey’s rampage through Texas and Louisiana knows the invaluable role social media’s played in helping victims get the word out to rescuers. The advent of social media has brought us many gifts — and curses. Witness the effect it’s having on our children, as documented by researcher Jean M. Twenge in her new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–And What That Means for the Rest of Us.

Social media can — as Twenge and others have pointed out — both infantilize and enlighten us. And it can also have interesting effects on organizations, as a new survey out today from the Northern California Human Resource Association reminds us. That survey, which queried 20,000 HR professionals about social media and transparency, reveals that 59 percent agree with the statement that “The rise of social media has made my organization more transparent.”

“Transparency” isn’t always a good thing, of course — the good folks at Google could certainly tell you that, as they continue dealing with the fallout from engineer James Damore’s memo arguing that fewer women than men hold technical positions because of biological differences, not discrimination, and the company’s subsequent decision to fire him. The memo, which was posted on an internal company blog, was widely disseminated via social media, as was the reaction to it by other Google employees and Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s stated reasons for firing Damore.

The Google episode (and an earlier episode at Uber) were addressed in NCHRA’s survey, which asked respondents whether their organizations have changed their views/philosophy on how employees should utilize social media in light of those events. Only 24 percent of respondents said they felt their organizations had changed.

Another interesting finding: 68 percent of male respondents feel their organization has become more transparent due to social media. but only 54 percent of female participants said that was the case. And, while 69 percent of respondents from large organizations with 10,000 or more employees say their organizations have become more transparent thanks to social media, only 50 percent of those from organizations with between 201 and 1,000 employees say the same.

“Within the HR community, transparency is usually regarded as a positive attribute within the organization, because it can be used to cultivate trust,” says NCHRA CEO Greg Morton. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen several instances in the news recently that illustrate how that transparency can backfire if the organization has underlying cultural issues that haven’t been addressed.”

Well said. In other words, it’s probably best if HR be vigilant about listening carefully to employees and addressing any issues that are uncovered first, rather than waiting for transparency to do the job — and cause plenty of avoidable problems.