I’m amazed at how arcane companies are when it comes to social media. Most view it as a direct threat to their authority. Have these executives forgotten about the “water cooler” talk that formed the undercurrent of organizational communication? Social media is the new water cooler but with some added advantages for those companies willing to embrace it.

Before the advent of social media, employees used hallway talk and the “rumor mill” to discuss their issues, complaints, and opinions. Most of that talk centered around how ‘incompetent’, ‘idiotic’,… management was Daisy Drew. These discussions formed the foundation of the authentic communication within an organization. Most of this talk remained within the employee underground. On occasion, management would get a whiff of something in the air, but could rarely pin it down let alone address it. Whispers around the water cooler are where people got their “real” information. Rumor was the communication currency of those not plugged into management. And management was often perplexed by what they observed in their organization because pinning down its source was nearly impossible. The “employee channel” was a closely guarded, subscription-only service that management was not qualified to receive.

Enter social media. Initially used largely for people to connect with friends and stay in touch, it has quickly evolved into an outlet to voice frustrations, opinions, and observations regarding the organizations people work in. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone since we don’t easily separate our lives into “personal” and “work” compartments. We all share these thoughts with family and friends, and social media is now simply another means of doing so. Certainly, hallway talk continues, but this new outlet offers yet another means of giving it voice. As younger generations of workers fill company desks, this trend will only accelerate. Many of these employees grew up in a social media world and it’s natural that they would use those means to communicate with others.

Here’s where companies miss the boat. You don’t have to research much to find examples of companies and organizations scouring through employee social accounts to learn what they may be saying about the company. So far - so good. However, what often happens is that people are disciplined, chastised, even fired for what they post. How is this really any different than the water cooler? These discussions have been happening since the advent of teams, but social media somehow makes this different? The only difference now is that there is a “record” of the conversation where in the past, people could simply deny they ever said anything. Companies should welcome this instead of looking to squelch it or punish the “perpetrators”. There is now a more direct means of pinpointing where issues exist. Without social media, many of these issues could persist for long periods of time only surfacing much later when the consequences are high and the remedies more difficult.

Social media should be viewed as transformative in the way organizations handle employee communication. For once, there is a means by which companies can get a window into the talk around the water cooler. Knowing what the chatter is allows management to address it. It raises the volume on the whispers in the hallway and helps to eliminate the guesswork. Instead of lambasting an employee for a social media outburst about their manager, companies should use it as a means of spotlighting problem areas before they escalate. Bad managers cost companies money, but complaints often surface too late in the world of hallway talk and rumor. Social can serve to accelerate the process of identifying the problems.

So instead of companies using social media monitoring as a battering ram, they should consider its value as a window into their organization. Savvy companies could even go so far as to sponsor such a resource internally, giving employees an anonymous outlet to let off steam. Regardless, companies need to realize that social media is not going away and will only evolve and proliferate further. Ignore it at your peril. The sooner it is embraced as a positive, creative, and supportive resource, the sooner it will begin benefiting the company. Want to keep good employees? Give them a voice. That voice increasingly includes social media, so get with the program!