We all suffer from the occasional blooper. I will never forget the moment of extreme embarrassment for my ex-boss in the UK, many years ago, when he made some very disparaging comments about a staff member who reported to him. Only to discover the bloke in question standing behind him, waiting to “have a word”.
That was back in the days before the internet, when Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was still in primary school. These days, the online potential for social gaffes involving work colleagues or customers is far-reaching – global even – with the permanency of the written record.
At the same time, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have opened up a world of opportunity to connect, not just with friends and family, but customers, investors, and people who have the knowledge or influence to help a business boom. And all without leaving the comfort of your desk or the awkwardness of small talk over canapes.
Such websites have made social waves in ways that one may not have imagined – Facebook has led to the exposure of fraudulent lawsuits and the discovery of previously unknown offspring . In the UK, Facebook is being blamed for 20% of divorces.
In the employment arena, social networking is shaping up to be one of the decade’s HR headaches. We are already seeing grievance claims in New Zealand from people dismissed or warned for breaching social media policies. These include an ambulance worker who called a colleague a “prick” and a “dick” on Facebook after an argument at work, and a civil servant who described herself online as a “very expensive paperweight” and “highly competent in the art of time wastage, blame shifting and stationary [sic] theft”.
In both those cases, the comments came to their employer’s attention via a third party. But can – and should – employers and prospective employers use social networking sites to check up on employees and job applicants? In a recent online survey by recruitment firm Hays, 38% percent of respondents said that employers should not use social networking websites to vet job candidates. According to employment lawyer Andrew Scott-Howman, it all boils down to policy.
Quite apart from written indiscretions, there is the matter of whether employees should be allowed to use social networking sites during work hours, and if so, how much personal use is ‘reasonable’? Online networking is only going to grow as those raised with a keyboard in their hands inherit the workplace from the baby boomers and Gen Xers. Already, some recruitment companies are visiting virtual worlds to find top talent.
But when you come to think of it, social networking is just a new twist on old problems, like distraction at work and protecting the employer’s image. Whether the problems come from gossiping online or by the water cooler, employees insulting each other virtually or in person, or staff wasting time in the coffee room or a virtual world, what really matters is that the job gets done, the customers are happy, and the employer’s reputation remains intact.