Social media and conflict in the workplace

Today I am at Manchester Metropolitan University, sitting on a panel to talk about social media and its impact on employee relations, and specifically on conflict at work.

The panel is mostly academic types, and I am there to provide the practitioner viewpoint. I seem to be one of the only tweeters, so I guess I might be providing the advocate viewpoint too.

So in advance, I am collecting my thoughts on the topic.

Whilst there are other theoretical positions, I think most people will agree on a practical level, conflict at work is inevitable. Frankly, so is social media.  Whilst there are plenty of individuals who aren’t interested in it, and many organisations still yet to catch on, in a world where there are 2billion people on one network, we can be assured it isn’t going away.

Social media has fundamentally and irrevocably shifted the way we communicate – at work and at home. The ever increasing blurring of home life and work life sees a spill over of technology and social media into every corner of our lives.  Social media is a place in which conflict can arise or present itself.  In many ways, it is merely the medium, not the cause.  But this spill over has the potential to move it out of the workplace.  Conflict doesn’t end at 5pm when we can connect so easily with colleagues in a virtual space.

The expectations of employees are changing as a result of technology. As consumers, we are used to ordering goods to arrive on the same day, tweeting a brand to share our dissatisfaction, having information at our fingertips via the devices in our pockets.  Why wouldn’t we want this at work too?

Consider typical methods of conflict resolution. A lengthy grievance procedure.  Multiple meetings.  Letters and policy.  Who has got time for that?  I read a paper recently on innovation in conflict management.  This so-called innovation involved rolling out internal mediation.  Hardly my definition of innovation.  I trained as a mediator a decade ago, and it was old school then.

These days, our employees are much more likely to post a bad review on Glassdoor or share their frustrations on Facebook. And here is where social media changes workplace conflict in another way – what used to be contained within a letter in the HR office or to a few friends down the pub, can be seen by the many – and lasts longer too.

For the social media generation (which spans age related stereotypes) are we likely to see them raise a formal grievance, or just tweet about it instead?

There are plenty of people queuing up to tell you about the risks social media can bring to your workplace. Companies still fighting the inevitable and blocking sites on the corporate network.  But when we consider the risks, we must also acknowledge the significant rewards too.

My view is that just maybe, social media, instead of being a place for conflict, could just be your best employee relations opportunity.

Social media is about conversation. Transparency.  Community.  Interaction. It is about building trust.  Availability of information.

And so is good employee relations.

If I go back to the theory for a moment, trust is at the heart of a good employee relations culture. When there is trust, there is less of a requirement for formal, traditional mechanisms.

The theory also tells us about the importance of employee voice. For many writing about employee relations, this means formal structures for employee representation.  Personally, I’d rather find my CEO on Twitter and engage with him or her there than raise an issue through the inevitable bureaucracy of trade union consultation.

In many organisations that I have worked in, there has been a gap. A gap of communication and information.  A gap in visible leadership.  A gap where meaningful voice can be spoken and heard.   A gap in trust.

Social media has the potential to fill some of these gaps. If we take the time, if we invest in it.

Although social media has been around for a while now, in many ways, in the workplace it is still an unfolding dynamic. For organisations it is still new space.

But for those places who want what the employee engagement lobby promises but doesn’t always deliver, maybe social media the place to start.

One thought on “Social media and conflict in the workplace

  1. Yes, maybe social can be the best place for engaging employees more, whether it is because they are happy or unhappy! And in the case of the latter, there is plenty of advice and online courses out there about how to handle complaints or crises on social media when it comes to customers – a lot of it will apply to employees of a company too. They also deserve good ‘service’.

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