Will You Be Fired For Commenting On This At Work?

I’ve been an active member of various internet communities dating back to the fall of 2000. In full disclosure, when I had a lot more anonymity on the web, I posted a lot of things that might fall into a grey area in terms of appropriate communication for 2010 where social media has blurred the lines between private and work life. Fortunately, my internet handle back then was pretty general, and, given the volume of internet chatter, it would be exceedingly hard and time consuming to attribute that “bad” stuff to me. While my membership and participation in multiple social media sites has increased dramatically since 2008, my internet presence has been consolidated. With one quick search, you can find me at Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, this work blog, and hopefully in the near future, my personal blog with The Wife. It’s a far cry from posting on forums where the only thing to narrow me down was my self-listed location the “the best location in the nation.”

I know that part of the hiring process at Lorton Data involved a general search of my internet presence and what type of image my digital self portrays to the world. Today, beyond a few pictures of me at Halloween playing Rock Band with my hair dyed green, I can’t think of anything too questionable. Maybe there’s a political rant on Facebook, or a photo of me enjoying a tasty adult beverage in a legally approved setting. However, if Skynet is watching closely, I could be one ill-advised tweet away from employment oblivion (queue dramatic music). Each time I post to Twitter or Facebook I have to be aware that there could be business ramifications to what I have to say. While I highly doubt I’ll do anything to jeopardize my career, I need to be cognizant of my words before I click send.

Do a quick search on Google for the words ‘Facebook” and “Fired.” It’s okay, I’ll wait. You’ll see at least 16,000,000 hits. That’s a lot of words dedicated to the topic. You can read everything from posts about people being fired for using Facebook at work, to employers screening job applicants on social media sites, to advice on whether to add your boss as a friend. On a side note, I did friend my boss on Facebook and the only problem I have is the application keeps suggesting I reconnect with him. No offense Ray, but the 8-9 hours a day I spend with you is ample! Regardless, there’s a significant gap between the expectations of businesses and individuals when it comes to social media and how people interact outside of work.

I’ve dropped over 400 words without discussing anything really useful or new to the conversation, so it’s time to switch gears. We have three conflicting issues that need to be addressed as businesses and individuals adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the internet and social media applications.

1. Anonymity

We are no longer talking about issues of privacy in the new digital landscape. We gave that up when we agreed to the terms of Facebook, Twitter and Linked In. Maybe we didn’t with Google Buzz, but I’ve addressed that already. Instead, most people are looking for internet anonymity. We want to be able to communicate with our friends, family and a limited number co-workers without being noticed by the outside world. Based on the volume of ones and zeros dedicated to this topic, anonymity isn’t necessarily working out as we might have assumed.

2. Social Media Policies for Businesses and Organizations

Let’s not talk about usage at work, but rather what the business feels is appropriate for promoting their image. The rules don’t have to be Draconian, but if you want to give a pink slip to someone for inappropriate online behavior, don’t play “guess what’s behind my back.” It shouldn’t be a moving target. I understand it isn’t necessarily obvious what rules need to be in place, but build a framework. That way everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises when a policy is violated. If an organization doesn’t have a social media policy in place, they should be hands off on what people do on the web when they aren’t at work. That seems pretty reasonable to me.

3. Monitoring Employee Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and Blogs

Monitoring these social marketing tools that people use outside of work brings up a myriad of philosophical and ethical questions. While someone blowing off steam about work on Facebook might not be appropriate, does it really warrant a discussion or an immediate axing? The Philadelphia Eagles fired a stadium gate employee for using Facebook to complain about letting a player go to another team. Based the Eagles’ response, clearly this guy was an important media influencer. Maybe a short discussion would have been more appropriate? Of course it depends on the situation, but employers having carte blanche over an employee’s personal life really reeks of a Big Brother mentality.

Many organizations are making the rules up as they go along, and that is okay. A little ambiguity doesn’t hurt. Just make sure to have some type of policy in place and that it is clearly communicated to your teams. If you are an employee wondering about something you want to share on Facebook, Linked In or Twitter—think about whether the end result would likely be a call from your mother guilting you for your behavior. If it would, don’t do it. A little common sense by individuals, and appropriate organization guidelines can function cohesively to reduce problems while standards and norms develop in regard to social media in a corporate context.

I won’t let you friend me on Facebook if I don’t know you, but you can connect to me on Linked In. If you aren’t into the whole professional thing, follow me on Twitter @ FlyoverJoel where I assure you I won’t be talking about work.

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