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Don't Rely on Employees' (Not So) Common Sense

June 20, 2013
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Related Topics: HR Technology, Social Media, HR & Business Administration, Legal, Technology, Workplace Culture
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This is a guest post by Deanna Hartley. Hartley is a senior editor at Talent Management magazine, a sister publication to Workforce. The post originally appeared on Talent Management's site.

Not too long ago, a picture of a Taco Bell employee licking a huge stack of hard-shell tacos — in a uniform, mind you — surfaced online and set off a media firestorm. Apparently the picture was taken in response to a contest intended to feature employees enjoying a new product. But the spirit of creativity took a turn for the worse.

Besides abruptly halting my Mexican food cravings and giving the employee in question his 15 seconds of infamy, the stunt had tangible ramifications. Regardless of the intent, no one (perhaps discounting some of his buddies) thought it was funny in the least, and it didn’t take long for the fast-food chain to terminate his employment. An interesting facet of this story is that it wasn’t even the taco-licker who circulated the picture via social media. All it took was someone else in the room — in this case a co-worker, who was also fired — to freeze-frame the moment for eternity.

Then there’s the Wendy’s employee who was similarly let go by the fast-food chain for starring in this photo where he’s directly guzzling what appears to be some (under different circumstances delicious) soft serve ice cream right out of the tap. The picture later went viral via Reddit, and other publications scooped the story.

That’s the tricky thing about social media: People can never be too cautious or exercise enough common sense to avoid being in situations where they could end up the laughing stock of the digital world. The problem is that common sense isn’t that common after all, as it turns out. This sentiment was reinforced by Aliah D. Wright, manager and online editor at SHRM and author ofA Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites, during a press briefing this week at SHRM 2013.

We’ve all said or done things in the heat of the moment that we come to regret. Hindsight is 20/20. But if people decide to enter it in the public realm (i.e. on Twitter, Instagram, etc.), then they have to resign themselves to the fact that the post or interaction will be permanently frozen online for all to see, and no amount of “that was taken out of context” arguments can salvage the situation.

Lest you think the chances of this happening at your organization under your watch are slim, I’d like to put forth a few other examples of professionals higher up the food chain whose social media interactions came back to haunt them.

You may have heard about the female professional who, after overhearing two male developers crack allegedly sexist jokes at a tech conference, decided to take matters into her own hands. Instead of directly informing conference officials, which would probably have resulted in the ousting of the offenders — or at the very least some disciplinary measures — the woman thought it best to take to Twitter and thereafter the blogosphere to publicly shame the supposed wrong-doers. It wasn’t long after that her employer parted ways with her. (One of the guys was also let go, in case you’re wondering.)

Consider also these high-profile journalists who lost their jobs as a direct result of a tweet gone wrong. Interestingly, posting distasteful content on one’s PERSONAL social media account is not a viable defense. That’s because in many cases, professionals don’t project themselves in a vacuum on social media. Regardless of whether they’re on the clock or not, they represent their employer – and it’s often near impossible to dissociate themselves from the brand.

Like it or not, that’s the reality. And like it or not, that’s partially your problem as an employer. Don’t you think it’s your business to know if an employee is compromising the integrity of your brand online, or would you rather be blissfully unaware of it?

During her talk, Wright suggested as a best practice that organizations assign someone — be it someone in HR, marketing or any other function that seems appropriate — the responsibility to monitor what people are saying about the brand. This can easily be done via a social listening tool such as Google Alerts.

It’s also a best practice to not only have a written social media policy in place to fall back on, but also to proactively push it out to employees so it enters their realm of awareness. If nothing else, they will be more likely to think twice before posting something potentially incriminating. Damage control is a reactive step, a last resort. Ideally, you don’t want things to get to a point where you need to allocate manpower to diffuse a social media gaffe.

In the coming weeks, I’ll talk about various facets of social media and its implications in the workplace and beyond. Can employees expect any sense of privacy in the workplace? Can a six-second Vine post ruin your reputation? What the heck is a Vine in the first place? What is a healthy amount of lurking for an employer looking to spy on an employee? For continuing coverage on these and more, check back here for updates. And if you have a specific question or topic you want to get a conversation started on, please post a response below or tweet at me:@Deanna_Hartley.

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