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Social Networking in the Workplace

Social Networking at Work Raises Ethical Issues

I have blogged many times before about the challenges of using social media for personal matters while in the workplace. In an interesting study on this issue, 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.

According to a new report by On Device Research, one in 10 young people have been rejected from a job because of the content of their social media profiles.

People have been getting fired for their activity on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for a while, but this report is noteworthy because it underlines how common it is to have negative real-life repercussions from fooling around on the Internet. You’d think that this widespread rejection would make young people more cautious when posting online, but the On Device study noted that two thirds of the respondents are not concerned that their social media will damage their careers. That means there’s some kind of disconnect happening between what people think is acceptable to employers online and what’s actually acceptable.

People have been getting in trouble from their employers for what they put on Facebook for years now, and there doesn’t seem to be a societal consensus on what’s supposed to be kept private or what exactly is inappropriate. Younger, more casual workplaces are far more lenient about the digital content their staffs put out, while more conservative, image-conscious organizations tend to have a far lower tolerance for illicit or bawdy behavior online. 

Yet even the most relaxed employers tend to have lines in the sand when it comes to what employees can put online, and many people are facing serious professional repercussions for what they thought were frivolous 140-character tweets and personal Facebook posts. For instance, the Daily Dot reported that a Phoenix-based woman named Amy McClenathan wrote “I wish I could get fired some days, it would be easier to be at home than to have to go through this” on Facebook … and then was fired promptly the next day.

Is it ethical to use social networking to discuss matters that heretofore may have seemed out of bounds? In other words, just because the tools are there to express your feelings about work, fellow employees and bosses, that doesn’t that mean it is the right thing to do.

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?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 5, 2014