The Real Reason Companies are Terrified of Social Media

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I was recently presenting at a conference in NYC, where the following question was asked…

What do you tell employers who are freaked out about their employees developing their own personal brand on social media, instead of the company’s?

Look, I get the tension.

As interactive platforms give employees the ability to build their own reputations and communities and demonstrate value outside the purview of their employers, companies are getting freaked about employees gaining too much “hand.”

Here’s my short answer to companies…GET OVER IT!

If someone’s tweets, posts and updates are so consistently, profoundly high-value that it’s making you nervous about their poachability or ability to launch their own competitive gig, don’t you think that same person would be establishing themselves both inside and outside the company as a thought leader to be courted…regardless of their use of social media?

Don’t you think they’d be savvy enough to “get” their true value and understand the extent of their bargaining power already?

Sure, social media might accelerate the process…

But, it also makes the pursuit of the acquisition of outside power and leverage by talented employees that much more transparent and observable. Rather than being forced into secret conversations and late night drinks, it’s happening much more in the light of day.

The answer to being fortunate enough to hire great talent isn’t doing everything possible to keep other people from knowing it.

It’s doing everything possible to make that person love you and your company. Empowering them with responsibility, trust and appropriate recognition, compensation and, if appropriate over time, a piece of the action. It’s creating a culture and mission that so resonates with everyone that the thought of jumping ship remained a distance second, third or fourth to the opportunity to contribute your gifts to the adventure.

As a small business owner, I dealt with this all the time.

When I ran a yoga studio in NYC and there were always a handful of teachers who would amass huge followings. We paid well, but not top of the market, because that wasn’t our model or our mission. But we always worked to create an amazing, respectful, tight-knit environment and grow a community of students that were magical to be with. And, that’s what kept so many amazing teachers in the fold for so long.

Did some superstars establish their own brands through word of mouth and social media and end up leaving? Sure. Did we experience a short term revenue hit as a result? Yup. But, these were the exceptions to the rule, we always recovered and grew and we were always happy to help them move into the place that was right for them.

The problem isn’t social media…it’s fear.

Whether through social media, face to face, conferences or publications, thought leaders always become known as thought leaders…independent of the brand or the entity they work with. Social media is simply serving as a catalyst to the natural process of demonstrating mastery.

Deal with it by cultivating genius, not caging it.

Imposing a moritorium on social media for your best and brightest will not in the end, do a whole lot to stop the talent drain. All it’ll do is push the process back underground.

Which leaves us with the same question entrpeneurs and employees have been dealing with for decades.

How do you allow people to flourish and also make them want to stay?

As always, I’d love to know what you think.

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24 responses

24 responses to “The Real Reason Companies are Terrified of Social Media”

  1. Vincent Lowe says:

    …you nailed this one.

    Fear, and the mistaken presumption that employers “own” their employees. These are ingredients for companies that fold or contract during bad times.

    You pointed to the inoculation for this among small businesses, and for big businesses there’s something else. It’s important to get real about who employees are for you and who you’ve become for them.

    As a worker, we’re not going to bring absolute loyalty to the enterprise building when we know that just about any day there can be that all-hands meeting in which we learn that we’re going to be spending more time at home soon. After a layoff (no matter what euphemism you choose for it) the people who remain suddenly start thinking more about their careers than about their jobs.

    I, for one am not building a career in which I inhabit a cage.

    In fact, I encourage all users of Twitter who work at companies which block it at the firewall to tweet just before entering their company and remind us that they’ll be in a ‘dark zone.’ Use the hashtag #darkzone and be sure to mention your company name if you dare.

  2. I wish my boss would believe this. He wants me to be a part of social media but he fears its potential. He is also a small business owner from New York and now owns a shop in Denver and I am sure you can teach him a few things. When I was first hired there I was an awesome worker, bringing in new services, I was the great talent you spoke of. That was two years ago and that sparked fizzled out. I have not advanced in the company and we are hiring outside managers that know nothing about the field or job specifications. He does not make his older employees love the company but puts the fear into them that if they leave, they will amount to nothing if they leave. His famous line, “You have it good here” but leaving always comes up as an option for many of us. Many of us have great talent but its being squandered behind someone that does not know anything about web growth. Maybe it is time to put your book on his desk and bookmark that section for him.

  3. Absolutely agreed.

    This seems to be the biggest point of contention for many employers – some who think you’re just slacking off, or some who think that your relentless networking is just a waste of time.

    I don’t understand why companies get so up in arms about this social media stuff – surely they can see that value added is value added no matter what.

    It’s absolutely true that cultivating this trend, encouraging low-level (or any level, really) players to get out and engage, it will benefit the company to no-end. And on that note, can we please do something to stop the social media firings? It’s getting old already… haha.

    -Nick Armstrong

  4. Oh WOW! This is one of the best articles I have read for a loooong time!!!

  5. David J. Hernandez says:

    Nice article. There is a fine balance between marketing/branding yourself and marketing/branding the company you work for, especially if that company is in the Social Media space.
    Ultimately it can be done, just look at what Dan Schawbel is doing.
    In this era, everyone in the company can be using all or some of the social tools available and increasing brand awareness for themselves as well as who they work for, the thing is, there should be some kind of simple guidelines employees should follow.

  6. There it is! It is FEAR – my company just recently utilized social media on an experiment and gain national exposure (all via twitter) from pop icon’s to industry news. Then two days later the site (twitter) was blocked. No explanation just labeled as “networking” – very sad b/c now they have lost all the momentum.

    Great write up!

  7. Matthew Hunt says:

    Bang on.


    “GET OVER IT!”

  8. Robert says:

    Excellent post. Sooner or later business will have no choice but to fully embrace social media. Otherwise the competition is going to blow right by them.

    People are going to talk about you whether you like it or not. It’s a better idea to hear the conversations and get involved…good or bad. You may also learn something by putting your ear to the ground of your market. I have refined my sales process countless times based on what my market says!

    Great Post!!


  9. “It’s doing everything possible to make that person love you and your company.” This is the absolute key. If an employer can accomplish this, then the individual employees “brand” can only help the employer. Why stifle an employees creativity and thought leadership because of a “false fear.” Reward…and be rewarded.

  10. James Hipkin says:

    I try to create a vacuum above employees. This is a space they can grow into as their knowledge and experience develops. I’m always there to teach and support, they aren’t being abandon so, if they trip or fall, I can catch them before too much damage is done but they don’t feel smothered. I find when I do this the great people flourish. Growth and satisfaction are better motivators for top employees than money.

  11. Mark Seiden says:

    Jon — Ask the good folks at Domino’s. It’s not only fear of losing folks. Controlling the brand’s message and reputation are also very important. Too many unofficial spokes-people can lead to confusion, or when folks do something really stupid, crisis.

  12. Tim Kilroy says:

    The power of the individual to create professional gravity (attracting respect, acclaim, etc) is NOT contrary to creating a strong company brand. I run a company ( and have my own blog (, and I feel that they are entirely complimentary. If my employees did the same, then I would be psyched. If interesting, smart, phenomenal people who are capable of developing a personal brand are working for my company isn’t that paying a compliment to the kind of work that my company can do? If I have superstars on my team, doesn’t that make my company better?

    Any company that is afraid of its employees developing their own notoriety is dealing with a management team that is insecure in the value that they, personally, can deliver. Let your employees use social media, let the build their brands…if they leave, you weren’t going to keep them anyway. If they steal your customers, you weren’t serving those customers well enough. If they outshine you? Well, then you’ve done a great job as a manager by finding, nurturing and promoting incredible talent.

  13. Deb Kolaras says:

    It’s definitely a switch in thinking from the “top down” mentality. Also feel like it’s something so different from their way of thinking, control issues undermine the reality – it’s not going away, and will move on with or without you. You can watch from the sidelines as your customers and competitors “get it” or you can jump in. The latter thinking might just save your company from becoming obsolete. @bizcoachdeb

  14. I love your philosophy on how to overcome this “fear.”
    People are assets only in that they can provide value to a company, not in that they are owned by that company.
    The social Web provides every individual with a way to reach many, many more people than exist within her immediate circle. No longer are a person’s ideas contained within the four walls of the home office. Each of us has, if we want it, a multitude of ways to share our personal and corporate genius with the world.
    You really did, as Vincent Lowe said, “nail” it when you recommended that companies stop trying to hide their employees’ genius and, instead, learn how to retain their human resources through supportive and respectful treatment.
    In essence, the social Web provides the “little guy” with the slingshot he needs to bring the Goliath down … or, at least, knock him down a peg or two. 🙂

  15. Great post! And timely too.

    Instead of fearing or fighting this phenomenon, companies could take a proactive approach and partner with their employees in helping them do a better job of it. At least this way, companies can help ensure that their employees are better equipped to manage their online presence in a professional and (hopefully) positive way.

    Or I guess they can keep sticking their heads in the sand and hope this will all go away. 😀

  16. Laura says:

    I created a “brand” for myself to some extent within higher education. I left to go into business for myself. I considered the networking and outreach I was doing to also be building a reputation for my institution, but of course, using social media was not part of how higher ed generally builds rep. And so I got no respect for what I was doing, even after people in other areas tapped my expertise to help them with social media. I began to be pulled in too many directions and not given credit for the work I was doing. I figured if I was going to be doing all this social media work anyway, I should do it for myself. And so that’s where I am. I agree with what Olivier says above, if companies are worried about their message, they should approach a social media savvy employee and work with them. I don’t think the message can be scripted and this can’t be too heavy handed (something my institution started to do, i.e. “you can only say this and not this”), but you can ask that the company’s logo be posted alongside industry-relevant material or that sig files contain information about the company, something simple like that. It’s a risk on both sides, but could be well worth it.

  17. Paula Smith says:

    Like everyone else I agree wholeheartedly with the comments but would also suggest that the corporate world’s antipathy and/or disapproval of social netowrking isn’t a new phenomenon.

    There will always be companies who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. For many of these companies networking, and knowledge sharing are not “value adding” ways to spend an employee’s time. They cannot easily assign a $ value to it, even though the customer experience may well be improved because you have a relationship with another of their stakeholders/suppliers.

    And isnt the customer the most important person in all this?

  18. Joe Jacobi says:

    As always, excellent post, Jonathan. Before we had these newer forms of social networking, what did we have before? We had traditional forms on person-to-person networking where companies had to deal with the same issues. The funny thing is think back to some Chamber networking after-hours event from a few years back. Who were the most fun/interesting/entertaining/authentic people to hang with? Strong personal brands!

    Frankly, the kind of fear you write about in the post captures the kind of fear you don’t want to see in good renegading. This kind of fear creates obstacles. Obstacles are what you see when you’re not looking at the goal.

  19. Laurie Foley says:

    Greatest boss I ever had would start every hiring meeting with “Our one mission is hire people who are smarter, better and more talented than we are.” I never felt insulted. I felt like I was part of something that was getting better and better and it motivated me to constantly improve so that we could attract those great people.

    He understood “no fear” WAY back when and always encouraged people to be entrepreneurial within the organization. Quite a visionary with a VERY happy team. Would love to see what he thinks of this discussion now.

  20. Donna says:

    Was recently laid off from an engineering firm that I had joined last June as biz dev director. Since energy efficiency is one of the things the firm considers one of its hallmarks, made perfect sense to capitalize on green, etc. (I’ve been in the industry a long time and have been involved in creating energy efficiency services/programs for 15+ years, so I know of what i speak). We could have been the first firm in Austin (high tech haven here!) to have utilized facebook, twitter, etc. to promote our track record in energy efficient building systems design.

    But no, their idea of marketing is putting an ad in the local trade industry directory. Excuse me, why are you telling your competitors what you do? They already know! You should be telling potential customers what you do! Plus, that Twitter stuff is a waste of time!

    Thanks for the severance package. Glad I already had consulting work lined up!

  21. Pierce Hibma says:

    Great article. Fear is the perfect word to use for “employers” attempts to keep others inside of a box. Online networking is so wonderful because it allows people to create their own boxes or exist entirely independent of a box if they so choose.

  22. […] The real reason why companies are terrified of social media (Via: @danschawbel) […]

  23. Fear that most companies and individuals have is because of their insecurities, insecurity that their popular/talented employees might leave them for some other company/competitor, insecurity that their might join their own company and become a competitor to name a few.

    These insecurities come inherently from their lack of confidence about doing the right thing, giving the right culture etc and the fact is those who fear such things aren’t doing things right but instead of fixing that they focus on other things..

  24. Ryan Carlson says:

    As a corporate employee working for a company with an excellent brand, I agree with you. I would add that part of what drives the fear is the potential damge to the company’s brand and that one’s personal presence online could be misconstrued as the views and opinions of the company.