How to engage employees with internal social media

Hands up if you felt a sneaking sympathy for the HR folk at Lloyds, whose recent attempts to engage with their staff via the Intranet went spectacularly wrong. According to a report in the Sunday Times, the company used its internal social portal to praise its “fantastic” and “agile workforce” – only to be met with an embarrassing backlash from staff, who responded with criticisms about bureaucratic processes, lack of management support and the closure of the company’s final salary pension scheme.

The attempts to open up a dialogue with employees were undoubtedly well-intentioned, but it’s a classic lesson in what can happen if you try to give employees a voice without investing time in laying the foundations or having a handle on what people are really thinking and feeling.

Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. There are plenty of examples of organisations who are successfully using social portals to create open, honest cultures where employees can connect, collaborate, and help to drive the business forward.

So how do you make sure you get it right and turn your internal social network into a tool that can be used to proactively build employee engagement?

Involve people from day one

Employee engagement initiatives have a tendency to be ‘done to’ people – and internal social networks are no exception. They are often launched in a blaze of glory, but then flounder or fizzle out entirely because no-one has really communicated clearly with employees about what the purpose is and why it’s important for them to get involved. There needs to be some kind of narrative about where the business is going and how using whatever internal communication mechanism is introduced will help people play a part in that. In other words, don’t treat people as passive recipients. Be clear about what it is you want them to engage with and get them actively involved in conversations about how they can best use your internal portal to support their involvement.

Nurture it

You can’t launch an internal social network and just expect people will start using it enthusiastically from day one. It will take a little while for people to feel confident about contributing and to trust that they can comment freely without negative repercussions. Creating a team of internal champions, who can make regular contributions and encourage colleagues to join in is one way to get off to a good start. Making the portal the home page on people’s computers and using it as a route to access key documents, such as HR policies, can help too. Making it clear that senior leaders support the initiative is also important. It’s about finding a subtle way to ‘give people permission’ to use the portal, otherwise they may be worried that spending time on social media – albeit an internal system – could be seen as time-wasting.

Communicate, don’t broadcast

One of the common mistakes people make is to use internal social media to ‘broadcast’ messages. Yes, of course it’s a great place to share important corporate information and keep people up-to-date, but you need to talk ‘with’ people, not ‘at’ them. Encouraging dialogue is a great way to get instant feedback about new initiatives or ideas – and see how they are landing with employees. Think carefully about the type of conversations you want to encourage. Managers are often very wary of inviting dialogue with employees because they don’t want to have to share information or justify their actions. But not all conversations have to be about reaching consensus. In a recent CIPD report, Jonny Gifford argues that we need to develop our conversational skills and be more open to different points of view. “I hear you, tell more about that…” is likely to be more productive than a conversation where people are concentrating so hard on trying to get the other person to agree that they forget to listen.

Be responsive

There’s nothing more demotivating for employees than to be met with silence or indifference when they post an idea for a new product, service or suggest a way of solving a business problem. It’s important to respond to people and show them you are listening – even if you don’t necessarily agree with what they are seeing or think their idea won’t work. The aim of an internal social network is to encourage healthy, open debate, and to stimulate creativity and innovation by providing a forum where people can add insights and ideas. Managers need to think carefully about their contributions and responses. Yes, there will be times when they need to set the record straight, but if they dominate conversations or shoot people’s ideas down in flames, it will soon stifle the very atmosphere the business is trying to create.

Don’t expect it to solve all your problems

An internal social portal can bring enormous benefits to the business. It can connect people across the organisation, help employees get quick answers to questions and enable colleagues to work together to develop new insights and solve operational issues. It can play a huge role in driving engagement, allowing people who may not have formal authority to emerge as natural leaders in a given area, and generating a sense of belonging and excitement. Internal social media is not, however, a cure for all your organisational ills. An internal network will reflect the culture of the business it is serving. So if you have a command and control culture where people are encouraged to keep their heads down, they are unlikely to behave differently on an internal social network. If you are genuinely serious about opening up channels of communication and engaging in dialogue with employees then an internal social network is a great way to support that. If not, then proceed with caution!

One action to do this week: Find out how other employers are making good use of internal social networks. Read ‘Putting Social Media to Work: Lessons from Employers’, available on the CIPD website:

You might be interested in reading about why HR should get social.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Subscribe Now