How companies deal with employees who want to be influencers

At the start of the pandemic, corporate privacy lawyer Cece Xie found herself in an unexpected position when her first TikTok went viral. The video was a meme comparing her relentless work pace to that of her friends, who worked in marketing and, as she recalled, had “many happy hours.” She gained a large number of followers who started asking her questions about her life and her work.

TikTok easily turns everyone into influencers from lawyers like Xie to people who are just really good at using Microsoft Excel. A privacy advocate-slash-rising TikTok influencer, Xie found himself on the new frontier of corporate America, where employees in even the most conservative-sounding office jobs can leverage their content creation expertise and talent for paid influence opportunities. Managers now increasingly need to figure out what social media policies make sense for this class of slash influencers, who seem to largely expect these pursuits to be allowed.

Xie didn’t just take her TikTok traction and run with it. Before she started posting much, she consulted her company’s social media policies and met one of the social media coordinators. The company unsurprisingly wanted her to post confidential information, but also advised her not to post at certain times of the day that could indicate whether or not she was in a meeting. Xie said, “This is the part I did appreciate about my law firm – they didn’t want to suppress what the lawyer said as an individual. So it was a lot of, ‘You can say whatever you want, so make it clear that you’re speaking for yourself and not for the company.’”

Her following grew to such an extent that sponsorship offers came in that were too lucrative to pass up. “I think I was lucky to have worked very closely with some partners who believed that you should be able to do other things in life. next to work,’ she said. So they set up a process for Xie to get sponsorship approved. Influencing pays her well enough that she recently quit her job as a lawyer to start writing books, although she plans to remain a member of the Bar Association.

Xie acknowledged that not all law firms support employee use of social media as much as hers. Much of corporate America is probably baffled at the prospect of having part-time influencers on their payroll. Take media outlets, which have had a slash influencer workforce for a number of years, but still don’t have an industry standard to manage it, unlike the long-accepted standards for freelance work. (Insider recently reported on tensions with the New York Times over a committee set up to approve journalists’ outside projects, sparking a weekend-long Twitter debate over the merits of journalists with “personal brands” largely derived from are of social media; I agree with the side who claimed that personal brands are essential for today’s journalists.)

Threatened by employees’ ability to book their own ad businesses — which media companies have struggled to grow for at least a decade — some media companies have sought to curtail such employee activity entirely, or cut all their deals, arguing that their affiliation with the publication allowed them to create a platform from which to monetize. (I recently reported in my newsletter that Vogue costs 40 percent, for example, about double what an influencer agent would take). However, these policies often lead employees who enjoy their media jobs to leave because the media pays poorly, and at some point it is no longer financially sound for them to stay and turn down money.

Xie believes having a clearly written and accessible social media policy should be the foundation of any business. She noted that she spoke on the topic from her background as a privacy advocate, saying, “It does both the employer and the employee a disservice not to formalize the policy, because you are essentially asking for confusion and divergence from what you actually want.” A policy, she added, prevents “weird fear from their employees”.

A media worker-slash-influencer who did have that weird fear only felt comfortable speaking anonymously for this story, fearing her employer would shut down her sponsored posts. Her company has told others when asked that it does not allow sponsorship of personal feeds, but has not documented this policy in its employee handbook or elsewhere.

“The last [sponsorship] I was doing more than my salary for the whole month,” said the employee. “I feel like I’m underpaid at work,” she added, explaining that her only increases since 2019 have been annual cost of living of about three percent. If she was told to stop monetizing her social media posts, she would quit even though she enjoys her job.

But trying to suppress social media use and the associated sponsorships will only hurt the media industry in the long run as these policies become increasingly unappealing to creative talent. The secret influencer said: “We work in the media – don’t they want people with a voice and influence?”

Curiously, despite being a progressive industry in many ways, many media companies lag behind others that may seem more conservative, in sectors like medicine, investment banking, and management consulting — all of which employ slash influencers. Jacob is the consultant slash influencer who co-managed the Consulting Humor meme account, which has nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram. He said he doesn’t advertise his side job, but the partners he works with know he does it and have no problem with it as long as he puts his day job first.

“Most consultancies try to ensure that you can have a robust life outside of work and try to support people who have sideshows and side passions,” said Jacob, who asked not to be identified by his last name or the name of his to be clear. to make sure he wasn’t speaking on behalf of his company. In consulting, “we don’t sell a product,” he said. “The driver of success in our company is when people stay in the company, and that is any consulting firm. I would therefore say that consultancies do a lot to retain people.”

Jacob never felt that his company was out to unfairly restrict someone’s use of social media. When he started, he attended social media trainings that emphasized that employees always represent the company. “It only takes one uncolored comment or one photo you didn’t want online,” Jacob said, “and it hurts the business model of a really strong reputation.” (McKinsey’s code of professional conduct states: “All colleagues are expected to present themselves professionally on social media. Even when using private social media accounts, we expect colleagues to be aware of the perceptions that can be created.”)

This makes the restrictive social media policies that drive talent away all the more confusing. If consultancies and law firms can figure this out, why can’t the media? Unlike Jacob, many consultants don’t use social media as part of their job. But in media, social media aptitude is a required skill often acquired through personal use.

Companies trying to prevent people from taking advantage of that skill — in the media and beyond — will likely have to change their policies as Gen Z enters the job market. Unlike older millennials, Generation Z and young millennials have had access to social media as we know it during their adolescence. Xie, the privacy advocate, wouldn’t be happy if she couldn’t monetize her posts, but she said, “If I ever came across a company that thought ‘you can’t have social media,’ I would think it would be.”

Amy Odell is the author of ANNA: The biographywhich will be released by Gallery Books in May.

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