Social Networking at Work Raises Ethical Issues
Between September 5 and September 12, 2012, the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) surveyed 4,735 individuals about social networking use. Most social networkers engage in mostly passive activity – looking at friends’ photos, observing Twitter commentary, or seeking information. But ERC identifies a group called “Creators” that are actively posting commentary, writing blogs, and sharing ideas – often about work for the world to see.
The ERC study points out that social networkers are clearly breaking old barriers and talking more freely than ever before about their jobs and their company. They say they think about the risks before posting online and consider how their employers would react to what they post. But social networkers increasingly air their personal grievances online: comment on their personal sites about their company if it was in the news; share information about work projects once a week or more; and more than a third say they often comment, on their personal sites, about managers, coworkers, and even clients. As a result, workplace “secrets” are no longer secret, and management must assume that anything that happens at work; any new policy, product, or problem, could become publicly known at almost any time.
Is it ethical to use social networking to discuss matters that heretofore may have seemed out of bounds, even violate confidentiality? In other words, just because the tools are there to express your feelings about work, fellow employees and bosses does that mean it is right to do so?
Unfortunately, our society has morphed into an era where social networking is the lifeline for many young people. They grew up with the Internet and have seen how the use of social networking can literally change the course of events in the world. Also, discretion, common sense, respect and civility are low ethical values on the totem pole of life for many in our society. Instead, greed, self-interest, and instant gratification rule the day.
This is a dangerous path to take in the workplace. The basis for a healthy work environment is trust. How can one employee trust another when postings raise questions about the former’s behavior? How can an employer trust an employee who posts critical comments about the organization?
Looking at another side of the issue, social networking also offers opportunity. The ERC study found that social networkers say their companies should jump into social networking with both feet for a variety of purposes, and many would be willing to use social networking time to advocate for their companies. Many companies already use social networking to communicate externally about products and services. Currently, the vast majority of companies use social networking to present a positive brand image and promote good things the company is doing in the community.
Social networking can be used to emphasize workplace ethics, reinforce company values, and build workforce loyalty and cohesion. About 50 percent of survey respondents said that social networking tools can build trust in managers (55 percent) and inform and educate employees on ethics issues that may arise at work (54 percent). As it stands today, however, many of these opportunities are missed. Less than half of all companies use social networking to help senior leadership communicate company values (42 percent); to build trust in managers (36 percent); and to inform and educate employees on ethics issues that may come up in their work (36 percent).
The ERC survey finds that clear policies, effective training about the use of social networks, and an ongoing commitment to an ethical culture in which employees act with integrity can mitigate the risks presented by social networking at work. In companies with both social networking polices and training, employees are more mindful of what they post, think harder about the implications of online activity, and spend less of their work time online.
Where policies are in place, half of social networkers say it is unacceptable to publicly post comments about their company even when they do not identify it. Without policies, only 40 percent say such posts are unacceptable. In companies with social networking policies, 88 percent consider their employer’s reaction before making work-related posts, compared to the 76 percent in companies without social networking policies.
The impact is greater still when policies are accompanied by training. National Business Ethics Survey of Social Networkers’ (NBES-SN) data show that 85 percent of managers with social networking training consider how their direct reports’ posts affect the company, compared to 60 percent who consider the implications in the absence of training. And, the percentage of social networkers who say none of their workday social networking is work-related falls to 32 percent from 50 percent if they have had training.
ERC has identified several strategies for addressing social networking, but four are particularly critical including:
- Develop broad-based strategies and social networking policies grounded in ethics and values, not merely compliance, so that employees are able to handle novel situations in an environment that continues to evolve.
- Establish a social networking policy sooner rather than later and reinforce it with training to reduce ethics risks for employees and management alike. Importantly, rules must reflect today’s realities so that workers are more likely to abide by them.
- Take advantage of social networking to enhance internal and external communications, especially outreach to employees to reinforce the company’s ethics culture.
- Invite social networkers to help shape social networking policy and to help the ethics/compliance function engage employees through social networking.
The risks and opportunities created by social networking in the workplace are profound. Social networking is wiping out old boundaries, exposing the workplace to greater public scrutiny and creating risks that never existed before. But with careful thought and constructive policies that reflect today’s world, companies can mitigate risks and also harness the power of social networking to build stronger cultures and advance their businesses.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 25, 2013