I don’t need to tell you the horror stories. The Primark employees ranting about ‘pikey’ punters on Facebook; the Red Cross worker who accidentally shared her boozy evening on the company Twitter stream; the resignation of New York congressman Anthony Weiner over a lewd tweeted photo. The business press will pick up on any tale of professional mess-making on social platforms with predictable glee. ‘The moral of the story, kids, is… people are dumb. People are dangerous. Give your staff a sliver of social rope, and they’ll hang themselves. Until next time!’
This fear-mongering prevents many businesses from even getting off the social starting blocks. When I talk to management about becoming social, however much we might discuss organisational models, internal comms platforms or cultural shifts, the conversation returns again and again to one theme: how do we stop our employees screwing up? This is matched by an equal fear on the part of the staff. What am I liable for when posting online? When exactly do I ‘represent’ my company in social media? Am I ever free to be my boozing, whoring self?
There are no easy answers, and to simply suggest that management ‘put in place good social media policies’ ignores the fact that conversation has a tendency to fall between the (necessarily vague) guidelines and throw us back on our social instincts. And those instincts are failing us in a space where the professional and personal blur. However, social technologist Benjamin Ellis points out that this is a relatively new dilemma. For most of history we lived in geographically bound communities where our work and personal selves were integrated, so we are in some ways returning to a state where we have to consider our whole selves as visible to colleagues, bosses, potential employers, competitors and family and friends once more.
I believe this is a good thing. People should not hide their real selves at work, and employers need to realise that for most of their customers or colleagues, discovering that Mark guy cross-dresses at weekends does not matter a jot. Honestly questioning the business impact of employees’ social behaviour, rather than invoking some moral knee-jerk reaction, is key. If someone is moaning about you with good reason, focus on tackling the problem, not restricting what they say. If they’re just moaning? It happens. We all do it. It most probably won’t implode your share price.
As for appropriate guidelines, you don’t need a guru to write them. It’s playground stuff. Online word of mouth may be more visible, but the same principles apply as offline: do not libel, do not betray confidences, and do not stand up and yell something in a crowded pub (or Facebook page, or blog, or Twitter feed) you aren’t willing to defend. Even more so if you’ve invited your boss or clients along to that pub (or platform). Otherwise, go ahead and be yourself. But if you want to criticise other people, you have to give them the right to do the same to you.
Yes, this heightened accountability means that we all have to become more circumspect about our behaviour; but businesses are going to become increasingly conscious about who they hire too. If you don’t think that a candidate truly reflects your values as a business, then why would you want them in your team? Spending time finding people you are proud of, not censoring their unsuitability, is a rather exciting thought.
The legal situation continues to develop with all the halting contradictions you might expect, but thankfully employees’ right to have a personal life online appears to be winning out. There was a landmark case in the US last year between American Medical Response, who sacked an employee after she criticised her boss on Facebook, and the National Labour Relations Board, who in response asserted for the first time that employers break the law if they discipline workers who post criticisms on social networks, under the First Amendment for free speech. Of course, there are exceptions, as the NLRB’s Facebook page makes clear. But in general, people simply have to be allowed to speak their mind, even if it is unpalatable to you.
Social interactions are pure grey area, and businesses must make some kind of peace with this uncertainty. They frankly need to stop being afraid of their people, and vice versa. Micro-monitoring and disciplining of word of mouth is unsustainable and ineffective. Approaching the issue with honesty and realism is the only way past the stalemate; often trust, common sense and giving permission to act (and yes, maybe fail) are our only enablers to move on.