Magazine article Workforce Management

THE THOUGHT POLICE?: Some Companies Offer Software to Sniff out Social Media Posts but Such Programs Raise the Question: Does Big Brother Belong in the Workplace?

Magazine article Workforce Management

THE THOUGHT POLICE?: Some Companies Offer Software to Sniff out Social Media Posts but Such Programs Raise the Question: Does Big Brother Belong in the Workplace?

Article excerpt


He's president and CEO of Social Intelligence Corp., a startup that sells tools to help companies keep an eye on employees' and job candidates' words, relationships and other activity on Facebook, LinkedIn and the like. Drucker says monitoring workers online is key to enforcing social media policies and reducing liability in potential workplace violence or sexual harassment lawsuits.

Social Intelligence uses a combination of search software and manual content reviews to monitor workers to see if they've bad-mouthed their company or uploaded inappropriate photos of themselves. The software makes connections between people's names and other online identification, such as e-mail addresses and Twitter handles, to create a more comprehensive picture of a worker's online presence. Companies can filter search results by different topics, including corporate image disparagement, racist or other discriminatory activity, and potentially violent behavior. In a demonstration of the service, Drucker shows that the tools would flag an online photo of a worker holding an assault rifle.

Social Intelligence, which began selling its services in 2010, is part of a cottage industry offering monitoring tools to help firms navigate the new frontier of social media. Although these companies, with names such as Awareness Technologies and BitConfused, aren't well-known, they have the potential to significantly change the relationship between employers and workers when it comes to privacy.

Some technology vendors offer organizations greater ability to monitor employees on company computers; others sell tools for peeking in on workers no matter what device they use to post tweets or Facebook comments. Such power to monitor workers' social networking raises concerns about employment law violations, rankles privacy advocates and troubles human resources experts who fear Orwellian behavior could harm their companies' reputations.

"You have to really think about it," says Mike Dwyer, a senior consultant at Chicago-based advisory firm Aon Hewitt. "Should companies really use a tool like that?"


Surveillance software could even prove damaging to employee morale. "People have a perception of Facebook that it's private," Dwyer says. He believes the best way to address the social media explosion is to talk with employees about the issues. Helping workers see the proper ways to present themselves online can make a difference, Dwyer argues, whereas surveillance software smacks of corporate intrusiveness.

A recent poll conducted by Dwyer through LinkedIn also indicates that employees are wary that bosses might stick their noses into workers' social media lives. Dwyer asked respondents if they would join their company's Facebook page under a variety of circumstances. Seven percent said they would join if it provided benefits information, and 17 percent said they would sign up if they could connect with employees globally. But 69 percent of the roughly 850 people surveyed said they wouldn't join because "Facebook is only for personal use."

The finding is not surprising given that becoming a "friend" to a company on Facebook is a bit like inviting the organization to track one's social networking activities. Facebook friends can see status updates, photos and other posts on personal pages.

Employee monitoring has been around for years, ranging from physical surveillance to phone call recordings to, more recently, keystroke logging tools for tracking computer use. But the Web 2.0 era of social networking, the rise of telecommuting and the proliferation of Internet-connected smart phones have created a new landscape. People often work at home or spend time online using mobile devices. They also create Internet personas that can affect corporate reputations.

Even so, many companies aren't rushing to patrol their employees on social media sites. …

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