Navigating the minefield of social media

SOCIAL media is littered with the graves of once promising careers. Google them.

You’ll find analysts who’ve lost their jobs, politicians who have found themselves in the centre of digital firestorms – and ordinary citizens who have gone to jail, all because of what they’ve posted on networking apps.  And that’s just in South Africa.

It’s a major concern for the corporate world; the headache of ensuring that they are on the leading edge of cool technology but at the same time don’t end up on the bleeding edge of reputational damage.

Some staff complain that their right to express themselves is being constrained, others moan that they never intended their posts to be read the way they were. The reality of social media though is that the court of public opinion doesn’t care: Twitter and its limited character count were never meant to provide the context you intended. People don’t read why you posted your video on Facebook, they just watch it and make up their own minds afterwards.

The truth is that your right to the freedom of expression is curtailed, exactly like it is when you leave home and walk into the office or the shop floor every morning. If you aren’t prepared to tell your boss to his (or her) face what you think about them for fear of retribution, how on earth does doing it on a digital platform make it any less dangerous? If you won’t publicly espouse one political view over another for fear of being shunned – or targeted – how can it be different when you out yourself on a virtual forum?

To make matters worse, some people even do it on company equipment – and then try to plead ignorance when they get caught. I have come across many c-suite executives who carry two phones – to separate their business from their private life. It’s a good practice in theory, but in reality, it’s highly impractical. Some companies insist on all officially issued phones being only used for work, in a very similar policy to the ones that govern the use of your company email address and indeed your company computer.

The temptation to use either your company phone or your office computer for other purposes is often far too great; the forbidden fruit is available literally at the press of a button or the click of a mouse. I’ve had people tell me that it’s too much of a schlepp to carry an official and a private cell phone all the time, especially when they’re expected to be on call after hours and over weekends.

So where do you draw the line? Taking photographs of your child’s birthday party is innocuous, taking a video of yourself in a compromising situation is another especially when it ends up in the wrong hands. It’s the same with email. Many people just sidestep the policy and open their private email accounts side-by-side with their official email, the moment they log in in the morning. Some ignore it altogether and simply send and receive private emails on their official email address.

The headache for most companies is not just that the conduct has to be specifically outlawed as an offence in the company’s disciplinary code. We see proof every day that what we might consider common sense and therefore not needing to be spelt out is often used as a loophole by the unscrupulous to escape any sanction. The rule also has to be reasonable and consistently applied. If the rule fails any of these tests, the charge won’t stand.

If it doesn’t then you’re forced to rely on the old catch-all offence: “bringing the company into disrepute” – but you have to prove that, not assume it. A person doing something inappropriate on their own phone in their own time for their own enjoyment might try the defence that their constitutional right to privacy and dignity were invaded by whoever leaked of the video.

If that’s the case, they might not get fired, but it might seriously affect their promotion prospects because it shows an incredible lack of judgement, precisely the opposite of the traits of a future manager.

As for the c-suite, if you’re there and you’re caught doing something like this, you’re toast.  Irrespective of whether it was your phone or the company’s. Why? Reputational damage. You’re paid not just for your business acumen, but your judgment and to be an ambassador of the company.

The intersection of our private and professional lives has become that much murkier in recent years. We are living in an age of unimaginable narcissism and exhibitionism, a devastating duo in the world of social media. To make matters worse, some phones now allow all your pictures to be aggregated in one spot, irrespective of whether you took them using the on-board camera or viewed them on WhatsApp. This creates another potentially terribly embarrassing situation, when you are scrolling through pictures that you are showing a colleague, some of which might have been inappropriate memes sitting right next to totally innocent pictures of something you wanted to illustrate a point.

The onus is on you as an employee not to be caught in this predicament. You have to defuse these potential social media booby traps to ensure you don’t inadvertently embarrass yourself or actually disable the mechanism that automatically collects the pictures, irrespective of their source.

What though of the employer? That too is simple. Go over all the existing policies and update them.  Ensure that everyone is aware of what they entail and then ensure that you apply these consistently.

If people aren’t allowed to use their work phones for private purposes, then apply that rule consistently – irrespective of how innocuous the content is. Likewise, private emails, rewrite your policies not just to outlaw the practice but also to allow your IT manager to conduct random searches of computers and any electronic communication done using your infrastructure – including your Wi-Fi.

Social media and all the attendant devices might be the greatest democratiser the world has ever seen because everyone can now post their opinions, publish their own news – or make their own videos. But they could also be the worst tyranny ever.

How we navigate this minefield is entirely up to us, and that – ironically – might be our greatest test of leadership going forward.

  • Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one human resources, a Johannesburg based executive search firm.

27 November 2018