The popularity of social media platforms like video-sharing app TikTok has exploded in the last couple of years. Still, it’s more than just people long-boarding while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” While social media has been around for years, TikTok has taken the intimacy of sharing up a few notches from sites like Facebook or Twitter. Candidates are posting about workplaces on TikTok before they even get the job, like the mom who brought her child to a job interview and now hopes to bring more attention to the need for flexible childcare policies. Current employees are also flooding TikTok with stories about why they love their employer and sharing insider tips and tricks.
The Social-Media-at-Work Conundrum
And employers are taking notice: A 2018 Gartner report found that of 239 large corporations, half were monitoring the content of employee emails and social media accounts. Employees often post during work hours and while using job property — and companies aren’t happy about it. And some employers aren’t happy their employees are posting on social media at all, regardless of whether it’s on company time or property. But where should an employer draw the line?
Employers have valid reasons to be concerned about employees’ social media use for privacy reasons: With more people working remotely, people are using phones and laptops for business and personal use and saving passwords on multiple devices. This new reality gives companies less visibility into cybersecurity issues, making the security of their workforce more vulnerable. Brand reputation and legal issues are a concern, too, as openly venting about disliking a job, bragging about being intoxicated or involved in potentially illegal activities, or sharing classified information are all serious matters to be addressed. And we can all agree that employees posting distasteful, harassing, or discriminating posts on their personal accounts should never be tolerated. But employees posting positive things about the company they work for or items that reflect their personal beliefs about politics is where things get a bit murkier.
The Downward Spiral of Going Viral
Many employees who work at places like Starbucks, for example, post about the brand, detailing their favorite drink creations or why they love to work there. These posts serve as unsponsored and authentic promotions. Even when content about a brand is positive, companies’ reactions to workers creating unapproved social content around a company’s brand generally aren’t so sunny. Brittany Tomlinson, who became known as “kombucha girl” (as well as the source of many reaction gifs on Twitter), was fired from her conservative bank job as a result of going viral online. Four airport employees were fired after making a dance video after-hours while using airport equipment as props. Shortly after, Sherwin-Williams found out that part-time employee Tony Piloseno was creating viral paint-mixing TikToks while using company machinery on the clock, the company fired him.
Employees As Organic Influencers
The employees who are let go from their jobs due to their actions on TikTok and other platforms are often surprised, confused, and even indignant about the outcome, arguing that they are giving free publicity and drawing more fans or users to the company. After all, Piloseno and others fired from their respective employers are often passionate about their company’s products. Many inject creativity, humor, and originality into their content. They post content of their own free will and without compensation, and by nature, they become organic influencers for the brand. These influencers are often Gen Z workers: a generation of digital natives that values transparency, online influence, and authenticity. For workers or leaders who didn’t grow up with iPhones, TikTok, or Alexa, the ease and frequency with which this generation and other digital natives use public media sources may seem strange — but to this generation, it’s as natural as any other daily activity.
Gaining a Loyal Community of Fans
Rather than immediately shutting down an employee’s outlet or muting them with restrictions, employers need to have an open mind and consider how they may build a community around a product or service fueled by the loyalty and passion of their employees. This type of organic promotion can be invaluable.
Yale senior Kahlil Greene wrote about his experience as a Gen Z candidate on Harvard Business Review. He said that he and his fellow Gen Zers love expressing their unique identities on social media, and as digital natives, they can be assets to their employers through their knowledge of tech tools such as gamification and Google ads. He stressed that most employees want to be positive ambassadors for the companies they represent. He argued that being presented with a multi-page compliance manual that severely limits or forbids employees’ use of social media may persuade employees to find a job elsewhere where people can bring their whole selves to work.
Building Strong Relationships
With that said, content that doesn’t originate from an official company account can be unpredictable. It can be a gamble for companies whether employees will choose to rave about the company or go off on a rant. But when you’re paying close attention to whom you’re hiring and getting to know prospective hires, you’re less likely to bring someone on board who truly doesn’t represent who you are. Chipotle is one company that has embraced its employees being on TikTok by joining themselves and tapping employees to be a part of it. “Your employees are active on social media whether you want them to be or not,” said Emma Vites Patel, an account director with LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions team in New York City, in a SHRM article. “If you want them to represent your brand professionally and enthusiastically, you have to give them some guardrails and then encourage their participation.”
Find ways to involve employees in social media in positive and rewarding ways. Consider initiating an employee advocacy program in which employees help promote the organization. This approach helps extend the organic reach of your business while engaging employees on social media and making them feel more invested in the company’s mission. It can also boost your company’s reputation and brand awareness, attract more great candidates, aid in recruitment, and improve your bottom line. “The first step is to give guidelines to employees,” said Mae Karwowski, CEO of influencer marketing agency Obviously. “Show that corporate actually knows that this is an app that exists, then monitor and reward positive behavior.”
Proactively Addressing Policies
Another important consideration is to have a solid social media policy in place that resonates with your company culture and sets expectations for candidates and current employees alike. A good social media policy is protective for the company and fair for the people who work for you and represent your brand. Being transparent and clear about expectations on both sides of the aisle leaves little room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding when using apps like TikTok.
Education is another critical piece of the puzzle. As the authors of this National Law Review article advised, companies should consider taking the time and necessary resources to educate employees about the company’s expectations on conduct and build a shared understanding of how specific postings may negatively impact the workplace.
Create a detailed and effective social media policy with acceptable guidelines and rules for responsible use. The plan should include everyone’s perspective after you’ve taken the time to address concerns across the company, including the senior leadership, legal, HR, marketing, IT, and communications departments. It should be specific where warranted, without being overly restrictive where it’s not. And any policy should emphasize the importance of safety, respect, and privacy — and that goes both ways.
The Clock is Tik-Tocking
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling that a former high school cheerleader’s profanity-filled caption on Snapchat while off school grounds was protected speech sets up interesting questions for the future of social media and the workplace.
And where the next phase of social media will go is anyone’s guess. Yesterday’s Snapchat, is today’s Tik-Tok, is tomorrow’s (fill in the blank here). Regardless of the next big thing, employers can view it as a threat to their brand. Or, they can view it as an opportunity to take stock of their values, open up the lines of communication with employees, and try something new.