Inside Washington DC: SHRM, Social Media and Fearmongering

Warning:  I am going to rant about Social Media and HR in this post.

I am going to rant about several things.

I am going to rant about:

  • human resources professionals who still practice plausible denial about their need to understand social media
  • lawyers who utilize fear-mongering tactics to create fear about social media at conferences
  • A failure to provide a balanced view of the positives and negatives of using social media as a tool in the workplace

I promise I will write a more thoughtful followup later, but I have to catch a flight this morning,  and I wanted to get in the conversation that apparently has already started – thanks to Mary Ellen Slater and her call in appearance last night on HR Happy Hour. Mary Ellen had also weighed in earlier on twitter – live from the SHRM session on the risks of social media that was cleverly titled “To tweet or not to tweet – Are you asking the right questions?”

From Drop Box

The takes have already started spilling out from HR bloggers including Steve Boese and Mark Stelzner.  These are both good takes, but they are takes with a distant perspective.   My take is from the sessions, and here is what I have to say:

HR professionals are not asking the right questions about social media.

SHRM did not do a good job of ensuring that the point of view HR professionals are getting from them on this important topic was balanced and fair.

Busy HR professionals and their excuses

I had discussions at the conference with a lot of HR practitioners who admitted they were not regular users of social media.   Most of them made it very clear that they weren’t really that interested in being users either.   Apparently someone has been teaching a new mantra – the mantra for avoiding social media.  It sounds something like this (imagine eyes drifting up and to the left, body language indicative of discomfort and lack of engagement)

“I already spend a lot of time on my laptop and my blackberry.  I don’t have time for that social media stuff.  I have staff that takes care of that stuff for me.  I am just going to say la-la-la-la-la-la until it (and you, Mr. Social Media evangelist guy) goes away!  la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

How the hell do you understand the potential benefits of social media as a tool to put to work for your organization if you don’t even dip your toe in the water?   And if you are a traditional risk averse, litigation avoiding HR practitioner, how do you learn enough about social media to understand the risk?

SHRM and their scary lawyers

You turn to your industry professional organization, and you attend concurrent sessions that offer lawyers discussing those risks.   At this conference, that would be attorneys Michael Cohen and Cynthia Gibson.  Both gave competent presentations on the risk factors employers can face through from social media.  In my opinion, both presentations were designed to incite fear about social media and did very little to explore the potential benefits that social media can offer to companies as a tool.  Frankly, neither presentation did much of anything to put social media in a positive light.

If you were an HR practitioner who is already reluctant or ambivalent about social media, these sessions could easily provide another check point on the litany of excuses.    “Social media is too risky for us to use here at XYZ Company.  I heard it at SHRM!”

This is dangerous and unprofessional.   I really don’t care if HR people choose to ignore social media as a tool, and something which could enhance their overall skills.   Anyone who doesn’t understand social media and the risks and opportunities it offers is placing themselves at a professional disadvantage to me.    Go ahead and say lalalalalala…

But you are doing your company/employer a disservice.  How can you advise on policy or assess tools or develop strategies around something you don’t understand?

Listening to attorneys isn’t sufficient.

SHRM and Social Media

I bothers me to be writing this when it comes to SHRM.   The people at SHRM are trying to do good things with social media.  They aren’t getting them all right, but at least they are paying attention and trying.    However, in my opinion, this was a fail. It is not that the content presented was awful.  It was just skewed and imbalanced.   I am also biased about social media, but damn, did no one even think about presenting some counter-balance for this conference?

SHRM, you can do better!

There are plenty of competent HR people out there (including me) who would be thrilled to present the positive side of social media at this conference.    It is not just a matter of fairness.  It is a must for our professional organization to be offering a balanced viewpoint on a topic that has such far reaching implications.

Disclosure:  SHRM provided me press credentials for this conference.  I am grateful for this.

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52 thoughts on “Inside Washington DC: SHRM, Social Media and Fearmongering

  1. China, I enjoyed meeting you at the conference and I wish there had been more time for more conversation. But I want to add my voice of disagreement to your comment about the nature of the conference as an excuse for the “fearmongering”. Here’s my example: Immigration law compliance.

    One presenter – Julie Myers Wood – is not only a lawyer but the former head of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Is it any wonder that a huge part of her presentation was about how wonderful E-Verify is and how everyone in the room should be using it? Are there risks to NOT using E-Verify? Yes. But there are also risks to USING E-Verify, as SHRM well knows, since they are on record as being opposed to the use of E-Verify and any additional government requirements to use it (I support SHRMs position on this issue). It’s interesting that she didn’t mention those opposite risks, if her job is to discuss risk assessment.

    The second presenter (in a different session), Stuart Brock, although he came down on the “use E-Verify ” side, admitted that he formed that opinion based on his client’s needs, and discussed the Westat studies which show the problems with E-Verify. He was balanced and gave people FACTS. He admitted there were two sides to the issue. He’s a lawyer, and he also admitted that if you put 100 lawyers in a room, you will get 150 opinions about what to do. That was a very different approach from most of the other presenters, who just said, “don’t”.

    You can’t tell people to just go to another conference. How many other conferences are going to talk about immigration law compliance?

    There are risks in crossing a busy street. You tell the 5 year old not to do it at all, unless an adult is there to hold his/her hand. But you tell the 13 year old to be careful and try to give them guidelines, because you know that there are great risks in making a 13 year old so fearful that they will never cross the street.

    In this conference, the attendees were often treated like they were 5, and not 13. See MY blog at http://www.joanginsberg.com for more on this conference and this pervasive problem. I hope to get with some other attorneys and develop a more balanced approach for the future.

  2. Hi Mike – Great post! I bet it was difficult to sit through that session. While I understand what SHRM is trying to do at an employment law conference – the message needs to be balanced (as everyone mentions above). This would have been the perfect opportunity to broach the subject since the audience was probably HR executives who would shy away from social media. Thank you for sharing your experience and discussing this topic.

    1. @Chris – hey thanks for chiming in. I really your blog! LOL…i spent a good deal of time early on muttering to myself, and finally spoke up about 45 minutes in,which did shift the discussion a little, but it was still a risk aversion fest. As Joan Ginsberg noted, the presenter did not use twitter,although she did at least seem familiar with the way it worked.

  3. China, Thanks for taking the time to explain the SHRM point of view on my blog post.

    While I can appreciate the fact that there is a goal of spreading an overall perspective across several conferences, and that each conference has a specific purpose, I have one concern I can’t get past. Not everyione will attend all four conferences in any given year, and if you are a practitioner who only attends the Legal conference, then it is going to give you a very skewed and inaccurate perspective on social media and its place inside the HR space.

    No doubt in my mind that the risk factor side was well represented, but very little was offered the other way.

    There were other things about these presentations that I found concerning, but it was more a matter of tone and content, and as a blogger – I probably do the same thing from time to time. I also want to say that I realize that that SHRM is doing a lot to promote and educate on the role of social media in the HR profession, but SHRM is also facing some stiff competition from people promoting the advntages, like ERE and some unconferences – the groups that are heavily biased the other way.

    As the group with the potentially largest audience, and the most reason to be balanced, ultimately all I am suggesting is that it might be worth consideration to look at being more balanced within the confines of a conference,a s well as across the gamut of SHRM events.

    Michael

  4. China, Thanks for taking the time to explain the SHRM point of view on my blog post. While I can appreciate the fact that there is a goal of spreading an overall perspective across several conferences, and that each conference has a specific purpose, I have one concern I can;t get past. Not everyione will attend for conferences in any given year, and if you are a practitioner who only attends the Legal conference, then it is going to give you a very skewed and inaccurate perspective on social media and its place inside the HR space. No doubt in my mind that the risk factor side was well represented, but very little offered the other way. There were other things about these presentations that I found concerning, but it was more a matter of tone and content, and as a blogger – I probably do the same thing from time to time. I also want to say that I realize that that SHRM is doing a lot to promote and educate on the role of social media in the HR profession, but SHRM is also facing some stiff competition from people promoting the advntages, like ERE and some unconferences – the groups that are heavily biased the other way. As the group with the potentially largest audience, and the most reason to be balanced, ultimately all I am suggesting is that it might be worth consideration to look at being more balanced within the confines of a conference,a s well as across the gamut of SHRM events.

  5. China,

    Thanks for weighing in with SHRM’s perspective. I think the issue here is not that lawyers spoke from a legal perspective — certainly I expected nothing less at the legal conference, which is, after all, employment law heaven!

    But having attended both of those social media sessions, I didn’t get a sense from either presenter that there are any real, concrete legal risks that are inherent to social media. In this sense, this topic is very different from say, SHRM’s excellent updates on immigration law and FMLA.

    Besides, lawyers are very good at working around rules in “the right way.” If they can do it for “black pools,” they can do it for social media. I would like to know more about strategies to overcome specific, common obstacles, rather than generic warnings to stay away.

    1. Mary Ellen – I am really glad you weighed in here. You raise some excellent detail thoughts. You also were present at both sessions like me. I think they did point out a number of statutes and situations that are legitimate reasons for HR professionals to be wary of the risk inherent in soical media. This is also a very cogent argument for why HR professionals in general, and SHRM specifically, should be presenting both sides of the social media equation at all their conference events.

      Many people in HR are clueless about social media, and looking for excuses not to be involved with it. If they clear time to gain any familiarity, it will be at events like this one, in short 90 minute blocks. If they hear only alarmist warnings from SHRM sanctioned speakers, this will likely scare them away even further. It is important that not be allowed to happen.

      I have said before and I will continue to say: Basic knowledge and understanding of social media concepts and platforms is rapidly becoming a mandatory professional competency. That doesn;t mean you have to tweet, but you do need to know what risks and benefits a platfrom like twitter offers your organization so that you can properly access strategy and policy related to such tools.

  6. Attorneys are trained to look at risks. Businesspeople are trained to look at opportunities. And while each organization has to decide for itself whether to focus on growth and opportunity, or protectionism and risk, too often, the decision is made on a de facto basis because administrators—in this case, HR professionals—are not presented a choice, but only one side of the business case. (Usually, the risk side.)

    The question I’d ask is, does SHRM offer a companion session on the business case for social media in HR, and does it market these two sessions together, so that HR practitioners understand that there are two sides to the story?

    And during the session, is it made clear that there are offsetting arguments to the positions presented?

    1. The answers to #1 and 2 is “NO” for the conference I attended. No companion session was offered. As China indicated, it is SHRM’s view that they do this at other conferences, not specifically at the Legal conference. I think this is a bad choice. My answer on #3 is “a little, but not much” One attorney said: “I have 100 slides in my presentation, but only really 2 of them talk about advantages.” I think that speaks for itself.

  7. I agree with you Mike. Sorry China but I think that SHRM should provide both sides of the picture. My opinion of most attorneys is that they have no practice understanding or use of social media. They just regurgitate case law without providing any insight into how or why it is being used inappropriately or appropriately.
    I have asked in social media sessions with attorney’s present about their legal opinion on sites like GlassDoor.com or Yelp and they have no response because they have no inside application or knowledge of these sites so how can their provide legal pitfalls or information about something they have never used?
    It’s like me trying to give information about the Benefits Plan Document without understanding the benefits process from a practical application. Folks like this, expert or not have zero credibility with me. I am absolutely sending in my presentations for 2011. It’s the Social Media HR Community’s responsibility.

    Jessica

    @blogging4jobs

  8. Hey Michael. It was great to see you at SRHM’s Employment Law & Legislative Conference last week in Washington DC. It was our pleasure to have you there on a press pass.

    And I appreciate your comments, although I’d like to point out that the content for the Employment Law & Legislative Conference is about just that: employment law and legislative issues. So any topic covered — whether it’s social media, health plan costs, employment verification, etc. — is within the context of either employment law or legislative/policy issues. So as it relates to social networking and employment law — the content will be (and was) focused on how employment law supports or does not support the use of social networking sites in, for example, the recruitment process. So if finding out that there are significant risks in using social networking sites for the sourcing and vetting of candidates is scary, then we’ve done our job! Our role in providing content is not to scare our attendees but rather to make sure they understand the legal risks involved in disregarding employment law. Frankly, those risks are scary and need to be thoughtfully dealt with.

    But that’s this conference. The Staffing Management Conference and the Annual Conference have an entirely different focus in the development of content. It’s at those venues that you’d see content about the use of social media for employee branding, engagement and marketing uses. An entirely different context.

    Hope this helps.

  9. Mike, it is certainly disappoint to hear this since I do realize that there are some people in SHRM leadership who are trying to bring about change in acceptance of social media. That said, this type of unbalanced conference is the exact reason I cannot justify asking my employer to send me to these things. Until SHRM starts presenting both the risks AND the benefits, we need to be vocal about it.

    I’m with you….SHRM can call me any day to come speak about the benefits of using social media for HR on a daily basis. I’ve been doing it and it helps me in my work regularly. When will they finally “get it”?

    1. @TrishmcFarlane

      Thanks for the note. I agree that SHRM is doing a lot. I am not really bashing SHRM in this post. Just pointing out what I beleive they could better in handling the legal aspects of a rapidly developing and changing subject matter, where quite frankly lawyers don’t have that much more expertise than skilled social media users.

      SHRM National has a better platform for bringing state of the art information and expertise to more people than the local chapters. They need to add some method for selection of “Developing” presenters at their conferences in a more timely way than CFP’s nearly a year before the conference date.

      I know this is difficult. I also know this can be done.

      Calls for presentation to #SHRM Conefernces for 2011 can be found at:

      CFP 4 Legal http://bit.ly/bQaEWK
      CFP for Global http://bit.ly/dt2oM3
      CFP 4 Staffing http://bit.ly/amMhYC
      CFP 4 annual conf. http://bit.ly/b2SqKn

      Speaker Information for #SHRM http://www.shrm.org/Conferences/SpeakerInformation/Pages/default.aspx

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