Review the scenario and then answer the case discussion questions that follow.
We are living in the age of social media. According to Pew Research Center’s survey, 73% of all Internet users use social networking sites. Regardless of whether we like it, many people live their lives online now. We have fewer expectations of privacy, we are more likely to write about what we see as opposed to talk about it, and everything we do and say has a broader audience. This has consequences for how employees work and how companies deal with the online footprint of their employees. For example, companies care about the online presence of job applicants. In a 2013 Career Builder survey, 39% of employers stated that they screen out candidates based on their online presence, and 43% decided to withhold a job offer because of what they came across online. Online behavior can signal whether the applicant would make a bad hire: Someone who bad-mouths a past employer or is disrespectful toward the opposite sex may do the same if hired. But online behavior that has no bearing on performance can also be held against the applicant as well, such as a photo in a bikini, a story the candidate authored that has too much violence, or revelations about the individual’s religious beliefs (the last of these would be illegal if done, but could be a challenge to prove).
Once hired, employees may lose their jobs for misbehaving online. This is probably a surprise to no one, except for the speed at which this occurs. Chrysler fired its social media consultant who tweeted (rudely) from Chrysler’s corporate account that people didn’t know how to drive in Motor City. A police officer lost his job in Florida after venting about parents and teenagers online. Racism, sexism, or just plain rudeness are simply more visible online and have more witnesses, and are therefore more easily actionable.
Not all examples are as clear-cut in terms of how companies should be dealing with online behaviors of employees. Recently, a female computer developer overheard two male conference attendees privately making (what she thought were) sexist jokes at a technology conference. She felt uncomfortable confronting them, so she took their picture and tweeted about them online and blogged about them the next day. One of the male developers in the photo was wearing a name tag, so he was identifiable. The conversation turned to whether the overheard comments were really sexist, was she being overly sensitive, or was technology as a field hostile to women. Then came the announcement that one of the male developers had lost his job following the online reactions to the event. This resulted in counterattacks and threats against the female developer and her company. Her company decided to respond to this situation by firing the female devel-oper. Within four days, two employees had lost their jobs as a result of one person’s using social media to call out perceived bad behavior and the public pressure that resulted afterwards.
Should organizations monitor employee behavior online? Experts differ in their suggestions. It is true that the online presence of employees may have job-related consequences. When Richard E. Grant, a guest actor on the popular show Downton Abbey tweeted pictures from the set, the cast of the show was chastised for their online behavior, as they risk giving away plot points. Companies need to guard their trade secrets and ensure that private and confidential informa-tion is not being shared or that laws are not violated, such as a hospital employee discussing a patient in a Facebook forum, and violating health information privacy laws. A study of IT employ-ees reveals that IT employees witness a lot of bad behavior on the part of employees: Employees download games (52%), download inappropriate attachments (57%), and browse social media sites (82%), introducing concerns about whether employees are doing any actual work during work hours. At the same time, the protection of the company’s rights needs to be balanced with employee privacy concerns and respect. For example, a new trend in some organizations is to ask job applicants to surrender their Facebook passwords to learn more about them. As of 2014, 12 states in the United States have banned this practice, and yet it endures. It seems that orga-nizations will continue to grapple with the reality of the online lives of prospective employees in the near future, and try to figure out the best way to do so.
1. The case only covers the surface of how the changing social media landscape is introducing challenges for managing employees. What additional incidents have you observed? What other challenges face organizations dealing with online interactions among employees, or employees and third parties?
2. How open are you online? Why do you take this approach?
3. How do you think the incident with the conference attendees could have been handled dif-ferently? What should the respective companies have done?
4. How do you think companies should respond to social media and the online presence of their employees? What should a social media policy look like?
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