Use of social media in the workplace treads a fine line

27 Aug 2013

Dr Andrew Power, cybercrime and cyberpsychology expert, and head of Faculty of Film, Art & Creative Technologies at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology

For Dr Andrew Power, an Irish cybercrime and cyberpsychology expert, social networking sites are akin to market squares whereby people can come together in real-time online to exchange views, gossip, find jobs, and spread news. But what about social media usage in the workplace?

The rush from businesses to cash in on this power of social media to broadcast their marketing and branding messages instantly, and often for free, can spawn new problems in terms of the ethical use of social media, for employers and employees alike.

When it comes to ethical behaviour in the workplace when using social media, the most vital thing to understand is that if it’s digital, it’s public, said Power, who is also head of Faculty of Film, Art & Creative Technologies at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT).
“Companies are beginning to ask interviewees for access to their social networks, but even if they don’t (grant access), the public access to social networks reveals quite a lot of information.”

The ‘Googling’ craze

In other words, if employers don’t have access to a person’s account, the ‘Googling’ phenomenon has made it easier for them to look at an individual’s Twitter account and Facebook page.
“That’s interesting because it feeds into the key debate in this whole area, which is the area of privacy, and people’s understanding of privacy.”

It’s possible that somebody will be able to see information, and to copy it.

“Privacy online is a myth,” Power said.
“People need to understand that any information that’s held digitally, whether it’s your date of birth, a photograph, a conversation on Twitter, it does not matter what privacy box you have clicked. If it is digital, if it is online, it is public information,” said Power.

Companies are increasingly using social media as part of their business, be it for sales, research, advertising, human resources or marketing campaigns. Along with this, management should implement a social-media policy for employees if it has not done so already, he said.

Social media policy

A social-media usage policy can address issues such as whether it is acceptable or unacceptable for employees to user their employers’ equipment to tweet from their own accounts during working hours.

Issues can also arise even before a job-seeker has secured a position in a firm, however. In Ireland, for example, Power said a swerve is starting to occur in that companies are starting to use the internet to screen job applicants.  
A recent survey from the Irish corporate law firm William Fry, William Fry Employment Report 2013, looked at how social media is being used in the Irish workplace.
In all, 200 Irish-based companies, both indigenous and international, were interviewed for the survey, as well as 500 employees.
The survey found that 86pc of employers said the use of bad language on a job candidate’s social network would impact their decision to hire that person.

Power said the best way to approach the online world is to treat it as if it were the offline world, in terms of how an individual would wish to be seen by others. This should also help employers and employees strike a balance when using social media in order to do their jobs better, drive corporate growth and not sully the company name.

The social networking space can get even more complicated as employees increasingly use their company’s corporate Facebook page or Twitter account to post branding and marketing information – as well as interact with consumers.

In Ireland last year, the use of social media by an employee of a café in Ranelagh, Dublin, resulted in disciplinary action. On a December day, a patron of the Dublin café complained via Twitter about slow service in the establishment.

One of the café’s employees responded to the Twitter user via the microblogging platform, using the café’s account. The tweets escalated into an exchange of discourteous messages.

Protecting brands

In terms of brand protection, Power said employees need to be careful when using their employer’s social media accounts.
“They [the employer] might end up being liable for their employee’s blunder. Communicate [a message] well. It is all about common sense.”

For organisations themselves, Power said there are products available, such as HootSuite and Falcon Social, to help synchronise a company’s different social networking accounts.

In the past, when social networks started to emerge, Power said some people may have been naïve about platforms such as Facebook.
He said users should take a few clear-cut steps to manage and keep their online image clean. For instance, a social media user should not complain about current employers.
“Try to be positive and discreet. Be careful when using bad language online. It could shock somebody.”

Online identity v offline identity

Power said there used to be this notion that one could preserve an online life and an offline life and “never the twain should meet”.
In the early days of social media, with platforms like Second Life, and even now, to a similar extent with gaming, there was often the idea that one could take on an online persona and act out in a different way, he said.

“I think what we are seeing now is that is a fantasy and the best way to manage it is to try to behave online as you would like to be seen to behave offline. Inevitably, people will understand that distinction.”

Power said individuals should portray themselves as they want to be portrayed.

“Put up positive stuff that reinforces your image. Look at your social networking life online as if you were an outsider. Google yourself.”
The key thing, said Power, is to manage online life in the same way as real life.
“If you were going for a night out you would have a quick look in the mirror to check that you have dressed appropriately. Why not do the same online?”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 25 August

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic