Ethics and Social Networking: Can You Afford Not To Have A Policy?

The age of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, and myriad more social media and social networking sites has opened a whole new range of opportunities for ethical problems on the job. Inappropriate comments and disclosures of every imaginable type are just a few easy keystrokes away and employees seem to have become desensitized to the visibility, 'searchability' and longevity of their online words and images. Libel and non-disclosure violation risks are problematic with social media and social networking while reputational risks – for companies and individual employees alike – are both constant and extreme.

Despite the above omnipresent risks, most companies seem to be yawning their way through the many very real ethical and legal risks presented by social media/networking sites all day, every day. In fact, "all day" may be a poorly chosen phrase since those same risks extend to what employees are also posting all night, away from the job, through those same networks.

Here are a few frightening figures from Deloitte's 2009 Ethics & Workplace survey:
  • Only 22% of executives in their sample said they had formal policies regarding employee use of social networking.  
  • 24% of their employee sample did not know if their company has a policy for social networking use on the job and another 11% believed that their company has a policy but did not know what it was. 
  • Although 74% of employees surveyed believed that a company's reputation could be damaged by social media posting, 53% still felt that their posts were none of their bosses business. (!) 

There are plenty of other interesting (and disturbing) data in that study but I think you can get the general drift from these few findings above. For what it's worth, the Deloitte findings are entirely consonant with the anecdotal reports I hear day after day from frontline employees and executives alike.

To make matters worse, many of the companies who have, in fact, developed social networking policies have created ones that are either overly ambiguous or absurdly strict and unenforceable. Neither can reasonably be expected to accomplish what a well-conceived and appropriately implemented policy should (i.e. reduce the risk for ethical and legal problems).

It seems to me that this really isn't rocket science…

For starters, why would you ban the use of social media and social networking on the job? Used appropriately, effectively and ethically, they can be among of the most powerful tools currently available for building your reputation and brand alike. Employees need to know how and how not to use them, not find themselves prevented from using them. (Besides, if you think your employees aren't using them, you are – at best – fooling yourself. Get over that delusion and, instead, use your time to help employees harness social media in a manner that is positive for your company as well as for both their professional and personal reputations.)

Like with any other policies and procedures worth writing, make sure that your social media policies are clear, enforceable, and that you can and will hold all employees to them, no matter how high or low their stature or role in the organization.

Something else to think about… Consider the possibility that problems with social media postings represent real problems in the organization and not just poor judgment on the part of those posting. Just because something shouldn't be posted in public doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taken seriously. If a post suggests a serious issue, don't punish the person making the post – look into the problem! (Mind you, you may also need to counsel the person doing the posting about other, more appropriate ways to report problems but that's a different and necessarily separate issue.)

Also, consider that inappropriate use of social networking and social media sites on (or about) the job might be more a reflection of your hiring, training, and supervision practices than a problem with your social media policies or lack of them. If you are hiring and training with an ethically-attuned agenda, you really shouldn't need to be telling employees much about what to say or not say online. That doesn't mean that a well-written policy isn't still a good idea, just that – at least ideally – it should only need to be a formality. Perhaps needless to say, dealing with social media/networking use on the job should really be no different than handling most any other potential ethical and legal risks in your business. Meaning? Ultimately, the most effective risk reduction will always come from your company's culture and not a rule book.

So, can you afford not to have well-conceived, well-implemented, and appropriately enforced social media and social networking policies? Sure – but only if you happen to have developed a culture that effectively provides whatever those policies would have stated had you, in fact, developed them. (Such cultures do exist, of course - Zappos.com comes immediately to mind.) What you can't afford to do, though, is blandly ignore either the significant ethical and legal risks – or, for that matter, the significant potential business benefits – these social networks so easily provide.

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