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7/25/2007
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Social Networking And Employment

These articles (see below) are not only relevant for those entering the workforce but for those existing workers that are using social networking sites to build-out both professional and personal relationships. As enterprise software vendors begin to deliver solutions in this space (e.g., IBM Lotus Connections), organizations should take a step back and strategically revisit policies regarding use of such systems and the information within them.

On the surface, this is no different than how organizations have treated other tools for communication and collaboration (such as e-mail). Decision-makers should do the basics and make sure that employees are aware of how to use such systems (code of conduct, policies and procedures) and how the company will handle privacy concerns and use of information gathered by participation in social applications. But more has to be done by enterprises in the case of social applications, especially in regards to the typical response that the information belongs to the employer (depending on unique country legalities concerning privacy regulations). 

Organizations that want to leverage the potential benefits from social application need to articulate some promises to participants regarding how such information and interactions will be used and disclosed at a deeper level. At some point, the portability of a workers persona could very well become a concern. Should a worker be able to have some part of their social identity "leave with them" once they end a relationship with a particular employer? Why in the world would an employee reveal information about their private associations, personal affiliations and areas of interest as well as levels of expertise if management can use that data against them or "harvest" that information without any value returned to the employee as a result of their participation and disclosures? There are many questions like these that need to be vetted as companies deploy social applications.

The crux of socially-oriented systems are the often neglected organizational and human capital aspects that many companies have a spotty record on, vendors too easily shrug off and most IT organizations are ill-equipped to handle. In my experience, many organizations do not have the right balance of leadership, solidarity, sponsorship and resources (e.g., ethnographers, anthropologists) that can help them understand their existing social environments and how to effectively influence needed changes to address structural and cultural impediments. Strategists are not likely to be successful in any endeavor to "transforming the organization" without comprehending the social dynamics within their enterprise.

The strategic value of social applications is not going to be measured by examining raw data statistics like the number of bookmarks the company has generated. It is also hyperbole for vendors to tout social applications as a silver-bullet for solving age-old expertise location and "who knows who" challenges. This was the case at a recent vendor briefing I attended. Sure, there will be some linear benefits that will clearly help business processes to be more effective or certain workers to be more productive. Social software can indeed help with communication, information sharing and collaboration. But that's not really nothing new and reflects the general evolutionary trend as tools become more mature.

The transformational impact of social systems lie in how well they enable organizations to be more agile in the marketplace, more adaptive to new work models, and more resilient to change (e.g., an unexpected threats). For individuals, social systems need to have value to them beyond their employment role and allow workers to not only foster external relationships but also blend work associations with lifestyle affiliations (as much as possible). Social systems need to enable workers to be more net-centric. That is, to be improve a worker's situational awareness of what's happening around them, to enable them to self-synchronize with activities that need to be done rather than wait on formal direction. Social systems are not top-down, they are intrinsically net-centric. They favor informality over formality. Social systems also tend to shift some degree of power from core institutions to the edge (individual people). Social systems help improve the "lateralness" of an organization - enabling more sideways motion across stove-pipes and hierarchies. Finally, social systems help organizations better catalyze "emergence" within their environments by allowing "patterns and structure inherent in people's interactions become visible" (according to professor Andrew McAfee). All of these items benefit the teaming, community-building and change management efforts often associated with transforming organizations.

In any case, back to the purpose behind this blog post. One of the first steps an organization should prioritize if they are considering some type of social application is to review employment practices and assess usage guidelines regarding the information gleamed from such social systems:

Facebook and employment: an equal opportunity information trap

After years of "fired blogger" stories in the headlines, it’s fairly well understood that a frivolous, embarrassing, out-of-context, or ill-considered online data trail can and does cause problems for employment candidates and employees. But when CollegeRecruiter.com asked employment lawyer and blawger George Lenard to examine the increasingly common employer practice of using Facebook and other social networking tools to check up on potential hires, George produced three thoughtful and informative posts describing how candidate data can land employers in hot water as well. While employers might consider online sleuthing thorough or clever or both, the reality is that if information concerning protected characteristics (e.g., race, gender, or age) is disclosed and the sleuth-ees are not hired, employers may find themselves on the wrong end of discrimination claims.

» Facebook and employment: an equal opportunity information trap | Lawgarithms | ZDNet.com

George Lenard On Facebooking Employment Candidates

This might be better suited to Overlawyered than Between Lawyers, but I'm posting it here anyway because it's a great series of posts. One thing I don't see addressed: one of the most powerful features of Facebook (and a host of other social networking sites) is the fine-grained privacy control users have over the visibility their data. Often, only "friends" have access to the kinds of details George discusses. But, lots of people do make their data more generally visible. It's ironic that employment laws are such that though "the public" may be invited to view such information, lucrative damages awards or settlements could be associated with doing so in the context of employment or potential employment.

George Lenard On Facebooking Employment Candidates. Between Lawyers: technology + culture + law

Related Links:

Employers Using Facebook for Background Checking: Is It Legal?

More on using facebook et al. in recruiting and hiring (Part II)

Employers Using Facebook for Background Checking, Part III

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