Social networks and web 2.0 content such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, our beloved Blip.tv, and a number of other similar social networking and media sites have exploded in popularity in recent years, allowing anyone and everyone to share when they brush their teeth with the entire Western world. A lot of what is posted consists of meaningless daily events, gossip, entertainment news (how many of us heard about Michael Jackson dying from Facebook before we heard it from even TMZ?), and opinions on basically everything, coming from people we may know from school, work, the bar down the street, or (miscellaneous).
Needless to say, the idea that people who know each other from work can broadcast their thoughts and feelings in a way that has no fading memory has employers struggling to find a balance between what is an invasion of privacy and what is a permissible use of information broadcast publicly on the internet. A statistical majority of employers have yet to adopt any kind of policy regarding social networking either on or off the clock – mind you, this doesn’t keep them from disciplining employees for bashing the owner of the company by name on their Facebook. Other companies adopt a rational policy specifically disallowing things that may give away trade secrets or that mention the company or its clients by name in a negative light. Some employers, such as ESPN and the Associated Press, have adopted extremely strict social networking policies for their reporters and commentators, lest anything reflect poorly on the corporation as a whole. More or less, they simply disallow any tweets, status updates, blogs, or similar posting by their “talent” unless it specifically serves the company in some way.
It is typically advised by legal professionals, ironically when asked on the internet in a message board format (yet another example of social networking), to stay away from overly restrictive social networking policies that may infringe with lawful, off-the-clock activity that doesn’t run afoul of the myriad of confidentiality, ethics, harassment, and other policies already in place – after all, one would also not want the policy itself to run afoul of state or federal law. In some states (New York, North Dakota, and Colorado being prime examples), the rights of the off-duty worker are specifically outlined and protected in state labor laws.
However, the argument can be made for companies such as the Associated Press or ESPN, whose reporters and commentators are regarded as public figures whose thoughts and opinions are to be trusted and endorsed by the organization as a whole, to put the brakes on inappropriate social media messages. After all… everything I just said.
Not all companies who adopt a very strict social networking policy, specifically dictating the types of material employees can post while off-duty and using their own computer, have that issue to contend with. As an example, my ex-wife worked in a company where pseudonyms were commonplace since the work itself entailed outbound calls related to medical billing. Specifically, the company’s day-to-day operation was designed around the idea of anonymity when dealing with the public.
Hypothetically, in the context of a secure call center, sales agency, or any other field where the public at large does not know the location or true name of the representative assisting them, should the company have the same level of concern regarding potentially “obscene” or “profane” blogs, YouTube videos, or song lyrics when the company name is never mentioned or alluded to? When the client is left anonymous? Should the company be able to take additional steps to trace anonymous posting or to crack pseudonyms when the posts are done on the employee’s own time and with their own equipment? Isn’t the fact that the employee will likely be taken as an idiot for their grotesque (and entirely unskilled) Photoshop work enough?
The obvious downside to such a restrictive policy is employee morale – they feel like they should grab a bottle of Victory Gin and head to the Ministry of Truth. Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime is death. Low morale equals low productivity, and low productivity by its very nature costs the company more money than it saves in potentially bad publicity – and the rub of curbing potentially bad publicity is that it may backfire. After all, both ESPN and the Associated Press suffered massively as the result of their policies, and they had a concrete reason for enacting them.
The less obvious downside is employee referrals – it’s tough keeping a labor pool when the current employees can’t justify recommending the job to their friends.
The upside, however, is the ability to take any statement made on the internet, invoke the “potentially” qualifier, and fire the employee because they did not like the color of the tablecloths at the company picnic and subsequently posted “I [expletive deleted] hate red and white checker patterns on tablecloths. I don’t know whose idea it was, but they have no taste” as their Facebook status. Then again, most companies who institute this sort of policy also don’t tend to have company picnics, since those are morale-builders, so that’s a tough one to measure.
The overall point is that social media can be used as a tool, and in its use as a tool it’s best not to muddy the waters with personal gossip. However, as always, if an employee is on their own time, it is only ethical to allow them the freedom to express their opinions in the way that they see fit, provided they do not cause material damage by divulging trade secrets or explicitly (and publicly) calling the company or its clients out by name. Furthermore, if said expression is in a language that they understand and appreciate, even if it can be construed as profane or offensive to people outside of their circle, then that is their right as a human. Anything aside from that is the procedural equivalent of handing out Newspeak dictionaries at the next team meeting.