Opinion: Employees going AWOL in social media

With the public now able to observe, comment on and share your every move, much now hinges on how you respond online to legal and behavioral issues, writes Charlie Pownall.

Charlie Pownall, communications advisor, and author of Managing Online Reputation

"Done working for the weekend. Jazz fest time!" tweeted newly hired PayPal Director of Global Strategy Rakesh "Rocky" Agarwal after a day’s work in New Orleans in May 2014. But things later took a turn for the worse when he took to Twitter to publicly insult a pair of colleagues, calling one a "useless middle manager" and "piece of s***" and calling for another to be fired. Realizing his error, Agarwal later deleted the evidence, apologized to his bosses, and blamed the episode on his new smartphone, claiming the messages were meant for a friend. He was promptly fired.

Until recently you could be reasonably assured that silly, inappropriate, or offensive things said by your employees stayed by the water cooler. No longer – the advent of Facebook and Twitter mean that rumors, allegations, and evidence of sexist, racist, or abusive colleagues and unkind, over-zealous, or unpleasant bosses can be made public instantly. Mercifully, however, deliberate attempts by employees to insult their bosses or colleagues remain relatively rare.

Arguably more challenging is the way social media has blurred the space between our professional and personal lives, resulting in a host of embarrassing incidents. The owners of Amy’s Baking Company (Scottsdale, Arizona) responded to being humiliated on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares with British chef Gordon Ramsey by slamming their own Facebook fans variously as "REDSHITTORS" (aka users of popular US social news community Reddit), "Pussies", "Punks", "Disgusting Pig People" and "Losers" . Staff at fancy Kuala Lumpur delicatessen Les Deux Gar?ons called their customers "bitches" in response to a complaint on its Facebook page about the quality of their customer service. Both incidents resulted in a huge uproar and a welter of negative press coverage.

Employees publicly denigrating their bosses, colleagues, or customers on the social web inevitably leads to trouble. However some threats are rather less obvious. It was hardly surprising that Rocky Agarwal’s rant went viral given the nature of what he said and that he let loose on Twitter. However there’s also a real threat from employees behaving stupidly or making offensive comments that are totally unconnected with work and on much more private networks such as Facebook.

Understandably employees figure they can say what they want to their friends using their personal social networks. But most personal online networks are dominated by loose ties – colleagues, former colleagues, and people we’ve met in the pub as opposed to close and trusted friends – and it is easy to forget that your profile can be indexed by search engines, meaning personal stuff now regularly makes its way into the public domain that not only makes the protagonist look foolish but which can also reflect badly on their employer.

There’s also the risk of news-hungry journalists and bloggers on the lookout for examples of poor employee behavior. Where better to look than their personal Facebook pages or Instagram profiles? In May 2011, staffers at Australian advertising agency GPY&R awoke to articles in the nation’s press detailing how their colleagues had been publishing "degrading" images of women on their personal social media accounts, describing then Prime Minister Julia Gillard as a "lesbian" and that its CEO was a member of the "Pippa Middleton ass appreciation society" Facebook group.

A little obnoxious perhaps but hardly a big story; your average Aussie would barely blink at such goings-on. But the agency had just been selected to review the nation’s Defense Force social media policy following a high profile scandal in which a young recruit had broadcast himself having sex with a fellow trainee to colleagues over Skype and journalists were looking for ways to extend the story.

Given the project was not put out to tender, it is also possible that they were tipped off by an envious competitor to GPY&R.

This is an extract from Charlie Pownall's book, Managing Online Reputation.

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