Social media in the workplace: personal conduct vs personnel misconduct

The role of social media in the workplace is a difficult, and often divisive topic. But with more than one in three American employees now a millennial – the same millennials that spend an average of 5.4 hours per day on social media – it’s becoming ever more prevalent in the way we live and work. 

It’s almost impossible now to run a business without recourse to social media channels, and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and even Instagram, can be invaluable tools in boosting brand awareness. If used incorrectly, though, they can be less a blessing than a curse for corporations.

The recent sexism scandal on LinkedIn, in which a senior lawyer was accused and publicly outed for his sexist comments on a younger female’s “stunning” picture, demonstrates quite how delicate the line between personal conduct and personnel misconduct can be. So with social media ever encroaching on our personal and professional lives, how can employees and employers alike ensure it’s harnessed to best effect in the unforgiving eye of the internet?

  1. Behave ethically and act in accordance with brand values

In 2013, Senior Director of Corporate Communications at IAC, Justine Sacco, found herself at the centre of a Twitter storm mid-flight between London and Cape Town. Before embarking on the flight, Sacco had tweeted from her personal account “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” – a supposed joke (though like thousands of others, we fail to see the funny side) that backfired catastrophically under the scrutiny of the Twittersphere. Despite having relatively few followers, the tweet was picked up and retweeted by a tech blogger who has thousands, and soon spawned its own hashtag. The saga unfolded unbeknownst to Sacco, including a statement from senior management. By the time Sacco landed, she had lost her job.

The fallout from the ‘Sacco Saga’ demonstrates why employees need to behave appropriately and professionally even when they are outside the workplace. Though they may use social media for personal purposes, employees are ultimately brand ambassadors, and should be reminded of this when it comes to managing online interactions. Personality is great, but professionalism is key.

  1. Be a social-savvy CEO

It’s not just employees who need to be mindful of brand messaging online, as senior management and C-suite figures have been known to fall equally foul. Among the most notorious offenders is current Presidential candidate and entrepreneur, Donald Trump, who has come under repeated fire for his controversial comments on race, gender and religion. Most recently, Trump slipped up on social media by retweeting an image of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sent by a follower who claimed it was his grandfather. This was the second such blunder for the politician; last year he was left red-faced after accidentally tweeting a picture of infamous serial killers Fred and Rose West, fooled into thinking they were the parents of a follower and first-time voters.

Trump’s blunder reiterates the first rule of social media – ALWAYS check your facts. Although in this case a little embarrassment may have been the worst outcome, misinformed and offensive content can seriously damage a brand’s reputation. The internet is after all very unforgiving, and never forgets a mistake. Key to social media success in the workplace is management is setting a good example to employees – both online as well as off.

3. Encourage communication…carefully

Even the most social media aware organizations can sometimes get it wrong online, as was seen in the dramatic failure of a JP Morgan Q&A session in late 2013. After inviting Twitter followers to pose questions using the hashtag #AskJPM, the company was inundated with verbal abuse from users who hijacked the hashtag to ask questions such as “Quick! You’re locked in a room with no key, a chair, two paper clips, and a lightbulb. How do you defraud investors? #AskJPM”. After 80,000 tweets, at least two thirds of which were negative, the Q&A was cancelled.

So what’s the moral of the story?

Though direct communication between brands, customers and employees can – and often does – generate positive business outcomes, it’s important to manage any engagement delicately. Increased social media communication between employers and employees can help boost sales by almost a quarter, as employees feel more engaged as brand ‘activists’ – so encouraging personal use of social media clearly has its benefits. It’s a medium that should be handled with care though, to ensure your business stays on the right side of the delicate line between personal conduct and personnel misconduct.

For more on how to turn employees into brand ambassadors, read our recent blog, and to review our own social media efforts, check out LinkedIn and Twitter.

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