How to Create an Ethical Organization Culture
Why a Strong Work Ethic Matters

The Ethics of Using Social Media in the Workplace

How Should Companies Monitor Social Media Use?

This blog was first posted in February 2016, but takes on a new meaning given the increasing use of social media in the workplace and need for companies to set limits for employee use. The blog has been updated to reference best practices for social media use in the workplace.

How are we to judge whether a company’s use of social media in monitoring employee behavior is ethical or not? With all the benefits that social media is bringing to the corporate world, a company faces numerous risks in its use, from misuse of company resources, to conflicts of interest and disparagement of others. Social media is a challenging topic because it crosses over so many ethics and compliance issues.   Social Media Brands

When not diligently managed, social media opens the door to numerous risks – breach of confidentiality, conflicts of interest, misuse of company resources, to name a few of the more obvious ones. Since social media can touch so many aspects of a company’s operations, its leadership needs to address it in context to its overall business operations.  Unlike some risk areas, it cannot be successfully addressed largely as a stand-alone matter.

A company without an initiative to effectively identify, assess and manage its approach to social media and its various tools not only loses out on its many opportunities they offer but faces numerous risks to and improper business practices and activities that may damage the business.  A program to harness these risks does not need to be onerous or intrusive, but it does need to be proportional to the company’s exposure.  Further, a company should expect the social media arena to continue to change both in technologies, their uses, business providers and ways social media impacts the business landscape.

Corporate Compliance Insights out that a variety of possible forms of social media exist, which are worth monitoring and setting ethical standards.

  • Communication, such as blogs, micro-blogs, social networking and events.
  • Collaboration, like wikis, social news and bookmarking/tagging.
  • Multimedia, including video, photography, music/audio sharing and presentation sharing and live-casting.
  • Entertainment, for example, media platforms, virtual worlds and game sharing.

Companies need to understand the application of legal and regulatory standards to social media. Currently, a number of U.S. laws and regulations are being applied to the media’s applications. Regulation FD responds to the communication of company financial or other key operational information outside of the company. Employee privacy is covered by HIPAA. Intellectual property laws address how employees may communicate a company’s IP across social media. FINRA, the securities self-regulatory organization, recently adopted a regulatory notice on use of blogs and social networking sites.  But companies should expect the legal and regulatory environment to continue to broaden around social media as its impact on the business world becomes better understood.

According to Corporate Compliance Insights,

"Each company needs to consider three ways in which social media can impact it. First, it needs to address how employees use social media for their personal, non-company use.  Second, it should consider how it and its employees use social media for the company’s business objectives. Another issue of social media involves where a company needs to set rights and responsibilities for the non-employees it invites to engage in its social media activities."

Balancing the legitimate interests of employers and employees and job applicants, as well as drawing the proper ethical boundary between moral and immoral conduct regarding social media use is a very difficult undertaking. Employers have legitimate business interests to manage their companies; and employees have legitimate interests to have private off-duty activities. For the employer, hiring people and keeping qualified employees who obey the employer’s legitimate social media policies certainly can be said to advance the self-interest of the employer, which would make the practice moral pursuant to Ethical Egoism. Not hiring people or discharging employees who violate proper company policies and harm the company surely can be construed as a societal norm, which would make the practice moral pursuant to Ethical Relativism.

Furthermore, an argument can be made that legitimate and fair employer social media policies and practices achieve more good consequences than bad, which would make social media-based job determinations moral pursuant to Utilitarianism. Finally, for Kantian ethics, there quite rightly are concerns that an employer’s intruding into an employee’s or applicant’s personal life, as reflected on social media, could impinge on the employee’s freedom, privacy, and dignity and thus be immoral.

A useful resource is a document by Tim Fox, the Compliance Evangelist that provides best practices for social media use in the workplace. Briefly, Fox recommends the following.

  • Let Your Employees Know What You Stand For.
  • Celebrate Their Efforts.
  • Give Your Employees a Tool Kit for Compliance.

In my ethics training programs, I have found that most companies have not established adequate ethical standards for social media use, and company policies have not quite caught up with the changing technology and more prevalent use of social media by employees. Encouraging employee use of social media in the workplace can be a good recruiting tool as so many devote a substantial amount of their daily time to various forms of the activity.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 15, 2017. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: Visit his website for more information about his activities and availability for speaking engagements, ethics training, litigation consulting and expert witness work. "Like" his Facebook page. Follow him on Twitter.