Perceptions of social norms are changing. Now what?

It's up to those of us trying to guide our collective organizations to set - and hold - standards of what we think makes a good professional

No matter where you stand on the spectrum of just about anything – sports, politics, science, gluten – you must admit that discourse and how individuals carry themselves regarding those topics is more off-the-rails than it was in the last decade. Some of this is driven by the advent of new channels and technologies, and some of it is driven by a lack of consequences, real or perceived.

These days, I find myself regularly railing about things in the political sphere via Twitter, more than I have in almost the entire rest of the time I’ve been on that platform. In many cases, I’m equally agitated with the "how" people are handling themselves as I am about the "what" they’re saying.

I bring this up as our team recently went through the process of hiring an intern, and I got to thinking about the ways prospective colleagues think are appropriate to handle themselves in this day and age, and how that’s quickly evolving. I started wondering whether all the work I’d put into development of social media rules and guidelines for clients over the years would be thrown out the window based on the examples garnering headlines in this country and beyond. This isn’t just about politicians, either. It’s athletes, businesspeople, artists, and more.

There are lines that society attempts to apply to things, and while those lines tend to shift from time to time, they aren’t simply obliterated just because people feel like obliterating them.

These are no different than various "casual" social contracts that most developed societies employ. They’re full of unwritten rules, such as "don’t steal your neighbor’s mail out of an unlocked mailbox," or being generally aware of people entering or exiting a building behind you. They all have consequences of sorts, some more intense than others. Ultimately, you choose to either be a part of these social norms, or you don’t. They may or may not matter to you, but they do affect people’s perception of you.

This isn’t meant to be a political statement. This isn’t about debating what activities are "presidential" or not. This is about understanding what activities are generally accepted as "off limits" when it comes to evaluating people for elected positions, jobs, and other roles. The day is not too far away where someone is going to say, "But I saw so-and-so do this, and they have so-and-so position, so why can’t I do it?" It’s probably already happened. It’s the super-amped-up version of the thousand times my mom said, "Just because your friend does that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea." While "you know it when you see it" tends to be many colleagues’ opinions on this situation, it’s pretty clear that the "you" has a pretty wide swath of perception possibilities.

Ultimately, it’s up to those of us trying to guide our collective organizations to set – and hold – standards of what we think makes a good professional. If it means being more lenient with how people conduct themselves away from work, then so be it. If it means hiring practices get more detailed in considering people’s attitudes towards societal attributes - hopefully without creating unfair labor practices - then we’re in for some interesting times.

Tom Biro resides in Seattle and develops marketing and communications strategies at Rusty George Creative in Tacoma, WA. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached on Twitter @tombiro or via email at tom@rustygeorge.com.

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