Managers struggle to keep tabs on gossipy avatars

Jun 13 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The rise of web 2.0 technology, with the spread of sites such as MySpace and Facebook and the popularity of 3-D virtual reality environments such as Second Life, where workers create their own "avatars", is posing a real challenge to employers, the UK HR body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said.

Employers have long seen the potential of such sites for the attraction and retention of key talent but are struggling to work out how best to use this new technology and make their presence felt without alienating the very workers they are trying to communicate with.

What's more, employees are increasingly using web 2.0 technology to swap criticism and information about employers and even to mobilise and co-ordinate industrial disputes.

Last autumn, for example, a protest of 9,000 IBM workers in Italy and 1,850 supporting avatars from 30 countries was carried out in Second Life, where IBM operates a "corporate campus".

Others, such as Burberry and eBay have been targeted through blogs and online boycotts, while union activists can even now access a Second Life-based virtual environment body called Union Island to help them understand how to use social networking and virtual reality sites more effectively.

The CIPD poll of nearly 800 employers, part of its annual Recruitment, Retention and Turnover survey, found that an overwhelming majority Ė eight out of 10 Ė were not currently using Web 2.0 online methods to attract or recruit employees.

Just eight per cent said they planned to start using this technology in the next year.

Yet, of the 100 respondents who were CIPD members, more than half believed that social networking sites were useful for engaging and communicating with potential job seekers.

A similar percentage felt that being able to use such sites would shed light on how they were perceived by employees within their marketplace.

Nearly two thirds were concerned, however, about the potential for damaging comments about their organisation to be posted on such sites.

Nearly nine out of 10 of those organisations that did use social networking sites did not use them as a tool to vet candidates during the recruitment process, something that has created contentious debate within the HR community in the past, the survey also found.

Deborah Fernon, the CIPD's organisation and resourcing adviser, said: "Organisations should be careful when using these technologies to vet candidates. In the quest to find the right person for a job, social networking sites could be at best irrelevant and at worst misleading.

"Good practice requires that every candidate is treated equally, which means all candidates would have to have similar profiles before information is used, and this poses challenges as not everyone has a social networking profile," she added.

"Through the richness of multimedia and connectivity, web 2.0 technology provides an opportunity to bring the employer brand to life and create experiences online that allow potential employees to experience what it is like to work within the organisation. Using technology like Facebook or Second Life, an employer brand can have a global impact," she continued.

Of the 54 organisations that used social networking sites to attract or recruit employees, the favoured sites include LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace.

Another issue of growing concern for employers is the amount of working time employees spend using these sites.

Research by the Confederation of British Industry this week calculated that the average worker spends an hour and a half a week of work time surfing the web for personal use, at a cost to the economy of £10.6bn a year.

While many organisations were by and large supportive of staff visiting non-work related websites, and viewed it as a motivational perk or a modern-day tea break, others were troubled by the amount employees were using them.

Some had even had to go so far as to sack staff for serious abuses.

The survey of 503 organisations reported that nearly two-thirds of employers thought staff regularly used office time outside of lunch hours and formal breaks to look at non-work sites, like those involving social networking, web email, shopping and holidays.