HR Management & Compliance

Social Media Monitoring: What You Need to Know

When executives devise enterprise risk management strategies, the goal is often to protect the company from outside attacks or unforeseen events that could damage its reputation and integrity. The challenge for HR professionals, however, is finding a way to prevent the problems that occur inside an organization from sinking the ship from within.

Social media monitoring is on everyone’s mind because of how visible and accessible it has become and because, in the event of an incident, many perpetrators vent their frustrations and intent ahead of time. According to a 2018 Gartner report, 50% of the 239 large corporations surveyed were already monitoring employee e-mails and social media accounts. Whether an employee has a public account or one that is visible to coworkers and friends, posts about personal or work-related frustrations may be on HR professionals’ radar. But whether to act and how to respond to this information are less clear and more fraught.

According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) study, which examined 160 shooting attacks between 2000 and 2013, nearly half of those occurred at businesses, such as offices, warehouses, malls, restaurants, movie theaters, bars, supermarkets, and distribution centers. A separate study conducted in 2016 found that in nearly 60% of lone-actor terrorist attacks, the person involved wrote a letter or public statement before the attack that outlined the beliefs behind it, highlighting that these threats are preventable as long as companies remain on the lookout for them and intervene.

Privacy concerns and the sense of being observed by an employer may give employees pause, and without a clear policy, it is impossible to respond to possible threats or concerns without bias and in a standardized way. If navigated correctly, social media monitoring can solve these problems and protect a company from fraud, workplace violence, and other threats. Here are three common questions on the minds of HR and security professionals regarding how to use social media monitoring to keep employees and businesses safe.

  1. Why might a company monitor employees’ social media accounts?

Workplace threats are often preceded by warning signs, such as social media posts about intended acts or language that reveals a deterioration in mental health. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, 77% of active shooters plan their attack at least a week in advance, and on average, active shooters display 4 to 5 observable concerning behaviors in the months, weeks, or days leading up to an attack. And in almost half of the attacks for which a motive could be identified, the reason was the same: an interpersonal or employment action taken against the shooter.

Besides mitigating workplace risk, the biggest benefit of social media monitoring is that it helps keep employees safe. A monitoring system that detects a concerning change in mental state can flag problems for immediate intervention, giving employers the opportunity to provide counseling and resources to employees who are struggling. Early intervention through monitoring serves a dual purpose: It enables employers to get employees help when early warning signs surface and prevents the planned final action from coming to fruition.

  1. How do I implement social media monitoring within the workplace?

There need to be clearly defined protocols that require specific responses based on an escalating scale so an employee’s potential early warning signals of frustration and language that indicates an imminent threat to that individual or others are both appropriately dealt with. The key to achieving that distinction is implementing this policy within a framework of anonymity, which separates the event (i.e., post) from the individual’s identity to remove human bias and misconceptions from the equation. Laying out the benefits and reasons behind social media monitoring, particularly as they relate to employee well-being and protection, can help secure employee buy-in and support. The future of the workforce may be overwhelmingly remote, and changes in day-to-day interactions that would ordinarily raise a red flag may no longer be visible.

Companies may also consider building out a vision for employee social media monitoring with consent, ideally as part of an opt-in process during preemployment screening. Establishing employee buy-in requires employers to be transparent about the monitoring process, which can most easily be done by creating a standardized policy for dealing with this information.

  1. What do I do if the system flags a potential problem with one of my employees?

One of the greatest challenges for most employers will be deciding whether to act on an alert and how to decide what action to take if they do. A threat should only be escalated if it meets the criteria set out in the company policy, whether that means suicidal language, indications of an imminent threat, or another metric for employee frustration that has been previously outlined for monitoring. And until then, social media monitoring can remain anonymous to protect the privacy of employees and mitigate any bias in the review process.

After a threat has been escalated, it’s important to have resources in place to deal with the implications. If an employee is at risk of harming himself or herself, the first step is to speak with the individual about any concerns and provide him or her with the information to contact a mental health counselor. The goal is to de-escalate a situation and provide employees with a course correction to protect themselves and others and to avoid taking serious disciplinary action if possible. Involving law enforcement should only be a last resort, but it should be done if that is the best way to keep employees safe.

Social media monitoring by employers is an extension and improvement of existing practices that were designed to make the world, and the workplace, safer. For issues of national security, there is no need for consent or notification, and social media sites are themselves monitoring user accounts for breaches in policy or etiquette. The fundamental difference in implementing social media monitoring within the workplace is that it is a collaborative process designed to protect both sides.

Social media monitoring is one piece of the puzzle for employers looking to protect their companies, and it must be combined with conversations with employees and managers to effectively integrate monitoring via people, process, and technology so there is a holistic risk assessment model in place. People are the lifeblood of an organization, and utilizing all of the available technology to protect them needs to be a top priority for employers.

There is no going back to a time without workplace threats and risk, but today, executives have unprecedented access to information and tools to keep their organizations and workforce safe. No organization wants to be unaware of publicly posted threats. Social media monitoring can and must be done right—with transparency and anonymity—to stop preventable tragedies and problems going forward. Executives have much to gain by taking this opportunity to revolutionize their risk management and too much to lose by ignoring it.

Tom Miller is CEO of ClearForce, an organization that protects businesses and employees through the continuous and automated discovery of employee misconduct or high-risk activities.