By its very nature, social media blurs our professional and private selves. When we put a disclaimer in our Twitter bio stating “Views my own, and do not reflect those of my employer”, we may feel that is sufficient.
Similarly, you often read “Retweets don’t imply endorsement or agreement”. Yet if you share the information, and if it is libellous or inaccurate, then you can be held accountable for its dissemination.
This was borne out by a recent case in Australia. Israel Folau, the professional rugby player who holds the record for the most scores tried in Super Rugby history, was sacked by Rugby Australia after he published a social media post saying that “hell awaits” gay people.
In the statement, Rugby Australia clarified that “whilst Israel is entitled to his religious beliefs, the way in which he has expressed these beliefs is inconsistent with the values of the sport”. The statement continued: “Israel has failed to understand that the expectation of him as a Rugby Australia and NSW Waratahs employee is that he cannot share material on social media that condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality.”
The Australian Rugby Union Players Association has since announced that it is to hold a review into religious expression so that it can draw up guidelines for players.
As a relatively new technology, there is little case law, and so we must rely on our ethical values to guide us. If what you’re posting contradicts your corporate values, even if it’s your own view, how does that reflect upon your employer? This becomes more ethically complex when we consider the current debate on employees being able bring their “whole selves” to work.
Ethical dilemmas arise in these grey areas—the tension between doing the right thing for your company, your family, yourself and your profession. This is where your values come in. Ethical values are the compass by which we live our life; they are what is important to us. Our values help us make decisions on which way to go in a situation.
But what can employees do when their deeply held personal beliefs—like their religion, their sexuality, their politics—seem to contradict the public face of their organisation?
Another example is that of the BBC staff who have been warned they could face internal sanctions if they express strong political views on Twitter, after several members of staff went public with their complaints about BBC programmes debating the rights and wrongs of teaching children about tolerance for LGBT people.
“We all have personal views, but it is part of our role with the BBC to keep those views private,” said the director of news in an email to staff. “There is no real distinction between personal and official social media accounts.”
The risks of authenticity
Social media presents opportunities for businesses to engage with the public. We have all seen the power with which we wield when we post a public complaint on Twitter tagging the company, compared with the wait we may have on a customer helpline listening to irritating hold music. It is this accountability which has helped business regain some of the trust which was lost following the financial crisis.
Businesses are also seeing the benefits of encouraging employees to become brand advocates. Employees—”real people”—can bring an authenticity to marketing where Instagram influencers are losing their allure.
So can companies have it both ways? Both encouraging employees to be authentic, yet only so far as it benefits the brand?
A social media policy is the first step in guiding staff, but it will not be sufficient in exploring the nuances of what ethical social media use looks like. Training, using scenarios and encouraging managers to discuss issues and dilemmas in team meetings, will help us all work out what it means to be both ethical and social in our workplaces.
The Institute of Business Ethics recommends five questions that employees should ask themselves before posting content on social media:
- Does it have any relation to my work?
- Could it be contrary to my organisation’s values?
- Is it clear that I am speaking in my own capacity and not on behalf of my company?
- Would I be happy to share this with my boss or colleagues in person?
- Could sharing this have negative consequences for myself or my company in the future?
But aside from the guidance of a social media policy, organisations need to hold conversations about what their corporate values actually mean, and to have open and frank conversations about how employees can express themselves within those parameters.
It seems that, on social media at least, nothing is truly private nor truly personal. Employees of organisations are identified by extension as its representatives. That means, just as we would be in a face-to-face encounter, we must be careful what we say, and be alert to the reaction of passers-by who might overhear.
Katherine Bradshaw is head of communications at the Institute of Business Ethics.