Folklore of employee communication always includes the “grapevine”, or word of mouth, the unofficial communication channel in organizations. The grapevine often centered on the water cooler, where employees were said to congregate and gossip.
That 1940-ish image of organizational communication seems outdated in view of Web 2-0-enabled communication, but the grapevine remains real. However, like so much else in communication/PR, the grapevine has been updated with new technology. For example, email. Emailed news can spread rapidly throughout an organization before employees can even get to the water cooler.
Employers often seek to restrict the flow of communication via the grapevine, which can at times be dangerous. Such communication is often filled with rumors, distortions, misinformation, and lies. This typically occurs when there is a vacuum created by an inadequate organizational communication program. Inaccurate grapevine communication often goes beyond the confines of the organization and does harm among the organization’s publics.
With the rise in usage of social media, the grapevine is now more powerful and faster and with greater reach. Using Twitter and Facebook, among others, employees often discuss ostensibly taboo subjects with much wider audiences than just co-workers.
Accordingly, are employers justified in restricting such communication? Not according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
As reported in The New York Times recently by Steven Greenhouse, The NLRB has declared in a series of recent rulings and advisories that many employer-sanctioned restrictions are illegal. The NLRB argues that employees have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook.
The NLRB’s ruling applies to virtually all private sector employees, Greenhouse writes, advising that certain broad social media policies are illegal. According to the NLRB, employees have the right to vent.
High marks were given to Wal-Mart’s social media usage policy, the Times reported, which includes prohibitions against “inappropriate postings that may include discriminatory remarks, harassment, and threats of violence or similar inappropriate or unlawful conduct.”
- Managers of organizational communication programs should revisit their employers’ social media policies and update them where appropriate.
- Employee communication managers should monitor and pay attention to what is being said via the grapevine. Correct the misinformation with facts. Telling employees the truth will counter the misinformation that often circulates via the grapevine.
- Employees should think before posting. Consider what you are about to write, for Google never forgets. Is what you wish to say harmless or hurtful? Think about it. What you consider a righteous vent may be a career-limiting move.