Abhijit Bhaduri | Dec 18, 2009
The Wall Street Journal sent out a memo to its staffers some time back outlining rules around the use of social media like Facebook, Twitter etc. For instance the journalists now need to take approval of editors before “friending” a confidential source on Facebook or Twitter. These ground rules should guide all news employees’ actions online, whether on official sites or in social-networking, e-mail, personal blogs, or other sites outside. This has thrown up a debate among bloggers and social media enthusiasts who are divided on two sides of the argument. If the employee were to spread positive stories about the employer on their social network is that OK? What if the employee were to spread stories about a bad manager or blow the whistle about a wrongdoing in case of a publicly held company? Is it wrong if the employee does the social media thingy during office hours and using the company’s network and laptop to generally vent to the world at large? Should the employer monitor such tweets or blog posts? There are firms who spy on employee behavior on Facebook and other social networks for a living. What if the person blogs or tweets under an assumed name and then conveys an opinion on his or her network, is that morally wrong or legally? Should the investor have a heads up about issues that may impact the stock price? The social media has given the power to every employee, citizen or passerby a chance to have their opinion published at the touch of a button. Along with this opportunity comes responsibility and the debate about the evolving roles of the players. If you think I am talking only about Corporations think again. there are countries like China that worry about what their citizens are Tweeting about. Youtube service goes down if there is objectionable content. Recently when two employees of the Dominos Pizza posted a prank video on youtube, it put a massive dent in the goodwill of the company.
There is this eternal war between those who communicate using mass media and those ABOUT whom the communication is all about. BusinessWeek asks a relevant question “What’s the right corporate policy for Twitter, Facebook and blogs?”
There is stuff about most employers anyway. It is on blogs, Facebook, news articles, Twitter, Orkut, Groups, Communities anyway. Conversations and opinions that affect the way others look at your brand – as an employer and also as a service provider. Imagine the world full of paparazzi (some of who are your own employees) ready to show the seamy side of life. People have opinions and they will express it – so what should the employers do? Some employers choose to deal with it by blocking access to social media sites in office. Can they do it? Of course they can. After all the employer can decide whether they will have you spend your time in office in anything other than office work. So complaining about the office cafeteria on Facebook during office hours can lead to action by the employer. Can they restrict employee? Yes.
Should they? If they spent the same effort fixing the menu at the cafeteria it would delight the employees and take away the need to police conversations. So why not work on that? In the early days of the Net companies used to block access to job search sites from the office network. The policy assumed that the unhappy employees will be so tired after a day at the office that they will not have the energy to trawl the net for their next employer. It would have been a easier option to for the employer to do focus groups with employees to find what they were unhappy about. In the pre Web2.0 world employers could screen and proof read articles before they were dashed off to the media. These “Press Releases” were what the Public Relations department managed and hence the organization had a fair degree of control over the media image. Unless some investigative journalist tag teamed with a whistle blower, the Enron like exposes would be hushed up. Photos of the indiscretions of the senior geezers were all hushed away.
Then came blogs. Opinions were cheap and easily broadcast to a willing audience. The control changed hands from the employer to the blogger. Clearly there will be some jerks who will grab the ball and run all over the beach attracting attention and spoiling your game, but most follow socially acceptable norms voluntarily. Blogs gave employees and opinion shapers the power to influence a much larger audience. Anything was fair game. Hagiography was out and after a brief run with the ball on the beach, most bloggers settled down to responsible blogging. Then it was not just text. You could upload videos of the office party with your colleague wearing a lampshade and flirting with the office cat. Then there was the microblogging thing with Twitter where you could message opinions to all those who were followin you (maybe even your employer … eeks). The line between public and private was blurred. It changes the definition of who is representing the organization in public space. After all everyone is a publisher of opinions.
The organizations rarely mention these policies explicitly in the terms of appointment which they hand out to newly hired. There are generic all pervasive clauses that are coated with legalese and incomprehensible to most employees. That may in itself be the basis of breaches. Tell the employees what information they can and cannot share online and the consequences of violation. Employees sharing information that is proprietory and the basis of competitive advantage are taken to task. Employees sharing what they thought was a harmless photo could inadvertently give away priceless bits of information to the competitors. A photo of the workspace put on the Net could give away the new packaging or bottling option that is currently being tested within the organization’s labs.
The power of the social media is creating a new set of ethical dilemmas with no clear guidelines. Most employers want to know during an interview why the candidate is looking for a change. Anything that cannot be supported by data is an opinion. Hence if the employee shares opinions about their current employer, their policies and the culture or a potential product line being shut down, is that wrong? Or does it become more wrong if it is put up on the Net. Remember, there is no such thing as a delete button on the Net. So a photo of a wild college party will be available to your future employer when they do a reference check about you. Some innocuous “friend” who knows intimate secrets about your online adventures may turn out to be your team member/ colleague/ manager someday. So the word of caution to employers and employees alike: Don’t do anything that would make you squirm if it made the headlines of every newspaper and TV channel in the world and where the anchors or scribes are your sworn enemies. Till you know what is good for you stick to Tweet Nothings.
Filed Under: Miscellaneous