The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK has warned employers not to ask for the Facebook username and log-in details of their staff or of people who apply for jobs. That this even has to be ruled on will come as a surprise to many – I wouldn’t expect to give my employers access to my house, or to my diary or to my holiday photos. But apparently some employers in the UK (but more in the US) have been asking for this data so that they can get an understanding of a candidate before they hire them, or of an employee they have working for them.

That this is being done, or even being talked about, reinforces the negative attitude there can be to social media in many organisations and in many recruitment processes. At its worst, it is a way to spy on people and something that should be banned from all workplaces and all workplace activities. This is clearly wrong.
 
Rather than banning social media or turning into a tool that is used to spy on employees, organisations should be encouraging and educating them to use social media to support their work and to support the brand they work for. A more restrictive attitude to social media is most likely to lead to a lack of respect of the medium and, potentially, of the brand you work for in that medium.
 
For many leaders and managers, social media can feel scary and like the unknown – there are new channels and networks and tools all the time, and the chances are others in your organisation will be more knowledgeable about them. The openness and sharing that social media enables is new to us all and is very different to the way that most businesses and managers have been used to. And for many there is a real concern that social media is about chat with friends and so it is wasting time in the workplace. None of these areas should lead to restrictive policies on social media, rather they should lead to training, sharing and education so that businesses can use social media in the most effective way.
 
The most successful businesses, and those that are set to make the greatest advantage from social media are those with a clear programme of training and educating staff about how the brand, and how they as individuals, can use social media. Both for personal reasons and for the brand. The line between the two is drawn, employees understand how and where social media can help them at work and so understand what kind of usage is acceptable.
 
For example, you might not want one of your sales team to be spending an hour chatting to a friend on Facebook. You might, however, love them to spend this time building initial relationships and credibility with contacts across a target segment or sector. You equally wouldn’t want one of your concierge or front of house teams in a hotel looking at YouTube videos for an hour, you probably would like to spend downtime searching for new places and tips in their city through YouTube or Foursquare so that they can better advise your clients.
 
Social media can help people to do their jobs more effectively and more easily – helping you to find people, find information, find solutions and learn things. At a conference in Cambridge last week, this was summed up most effectively for me by Charles Elvin, the CEO of the Institute of Leadership & Management in the UK:
 
Employees need to be constantly learning to help them and to help their employer; and social media is the best way of them doing this
 
To make the most of this, employers need to take responsibility for training their staff. The true social business has a process of training and educating all staff about social media, how they can use it, how they should use it for work and what they should not do. They may go on to train employees about how the brand uses social media and how they can contribute.
 
Social media offers many great opportunities for brands and for their employees to be more efficient and do things in new ways. Most people need support and training to make the most of this and it is this that should be put in place, not restrictive policies behaviours.