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Social Media and the Employee — Where’s The Line?

12/02/2011

Can Companies Restrict Employees Use of Social Media? « HighTalk.

The above link was on my WordPress homepage, and as someone who regularly uses Facebook both at work and outside of work (and sometimes actually for work) it struck a chord. Where, if anywhere, is the line that divides personal opinions and conduct from one’s job, or are we worker bees destined to become mere extensions of our occupations?

I say there is a line. Yes, I am always an employee of my company, but that does not mean that I am always on the job. My hours are pretty set, and as soon as I walk out of the office for the night or the weekend I am only a representative of my company when I choose to be. My boss is savvy to the importance of social media and we use it in our marketing (though admittedly that may be due more to our extremely well-informed marketing manager), but we don’t interact on a personal level on any of the platforms that I use. Ha, to my knowledge he doesn’t maintain any personal Web presence, so the likelihood of our crossing paths is low.

A guy I know used to work for a company that, while now deservedly defunct, shall remain nameless. I doubt that he always gave 100 per cent in his position, but he showed up on time and generally did the best he could with the resources he had. One morning he arrived at his store to find the general manager and district manager waiting for him, and he was promptly fired. His offense? Facebook. He was attached to his BlackBerry and would often update Facebook when he was bored or disgruntled, and not always when he was off the clock. He also made the mistake of being Facebook friends with his boss and others associated with the store, so it was possible to see timestamped evidence that he wasn’t always focusing on his job while on the clock. Looking back, that is the primary reason he was let go but I maintain that the “primary” reason was actually secondary to the content of his Facebook posts. This was not a great company to work for, as he soon found after accepting the job, and many of his posts were complaints about the lack of efficiency or communication between employees, as well as other concerns about the company itself. The general manager of his store, who happened to be the son of the company’s owner, was very likely insulted at what he read and used that as the impetus for further investigation.

Here’s the thing: I agree that he should have been fired, because his position did not allow for him to play on his BlackBerry through most or part of a shift, and they were paying him to maintain a store and not his Facebook account. However, had he said all the same things while off the clock, according to this article and my own opinion, he would have had cause for legal action.

That little anecdote aside, here’s where I see the line between personal conduct and companies’ rights:

  • Timing: Was the commentary in question left when the employee was at work or representing the company in a professional capacity, and at such a time when being on Facebook would have been inappropriate? I’ll admit, our boss doesn’t like us to spend our days on Facebook but hey — we work in front of computers, we have down time, and we all possess a rather amazing capacity for multitasking. It’s unlikely that an entire day will go by without at least a quick click on our blue and white homepage. The line is drawn when utilizing social media interferes with one’s actual job responsibilities (something of which I have been guilty) or occurs at a time that is expressly prohibited.
  • Web presence: I’ve discussed this before, but your social media presence dictates a lot of what is and isn’t acceptable. If your Twitter account is set up as a 140-character representation of your “office self” and you use it to spread the word about company initiatives and the like, it isn’t appropriate to tweet that “my boss is acting like a two-year-old who was sent to time out”. It gives prospective colleagues and clients a negative impression, however accurate, of your boss and may lead them to avoid doing business with you. Also, though this should go without saying, it’s unprofessional and if it isn’t an accurate portrayal then you just look like a bad employee.

    If your social media presence is purely personal or at least unrelated to your company (I consider this “professional” but it isn’t tied to my day job), the powers that be do not and should not have the right to dictate what you say or don’t. If you work in retail hell and you want to complain after a tiring shift that customers are just stupid and entitled and should never be allowed to spawn, have at it. You’ll likely find a lot of support in the online community.

  • Content: Yes, what you say matters. It’s one thing to have a status that reads “Work. :/” because not everybody is totally thrilled to go through the same motions day after day. I love my job in general, but there are days when I would rather just stay at home, burrow under the covers and not come up for anything but air and bad television. If you’re sick, dealing with personal issues or otherwise burdened, the prospect of handling irritated people and dealing with last-second crises can seem like too much to handle — or, at the very least, make you go :/.

    Content that is somewhat confrontational should not immediately be grounds for dismissal, but it does fall into the gray area of “totally inappropriate but what can you do?” Tweeting the above comparison of your boss to a toddler on a personal account is your right; if, however, you maintain any personal connections to coworkers outside of the office then it could lead to difficulties in the office. Every employee has a tough day, and sometimes it’s useful to vent, but if you have a legitimate issue with a coworker or supervisor then continually bashing them over social media is the wrong way to handle it. It indicates a lack of maturity and understanding of the real world, in which true adults will open the doors to one-on-one conversation and address their issues where they are most likely to be resolved. Long story short: you can do it, but you shouldn’t.

    Of course, there’s content that should never, ever be a part of your presence on social media: anything that undermines the business of your company, particularly anything that you have promised in either a verbal or written contract as part of your employment to keep confidential. Client details (sometimes even who they are), budgets, or  things directly related to the day-to-day operations of your company that are not already public knowledge should not be divulged. If your company is publicly traded and you want to reflect on the day’s stock price, that’s great. If your company picked up a large client and news of it is public, you can post “Great day; we just picked up [big awesome account]!” — just don’t jump the gun and do so before it’s been announced. The best practice is that if it’s something your boss wouldn’t want you discussing outside of your office, for the sake of all that is sacred DON’T PUT IT ONLINE.

Then again…there’s a lot to be said for just leaving work at work and leaving Facebook for all those funny videos…

What do you think? Have you run into issues with social media in the workplace?

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One comment

  1. Some sound advice and observations. Thanks for taking the time to visit and read my post. I appreciate it.



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