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Over the past few years we have heard a lot of managers complaining about the time their employees spend on Facebook. Many companies have taken drastic measures to close their internet access to these types of sites, while others have looked the other way.

Managers who are not technologically savvy deal with the issue as a traditional performance issue – that social media reduces time available for work in the same way that smoking breaks limit the available time for work.

Managers who are technologically savvy argue this is the way the world is going, and to retain good employees they need to allow a window into that world.

In the mean time we have scientists trying to prove that open access is great for productivity or is the worst thing possible for productivity, depending on who has funded the study.

But … all of these issues pale into nothingness compared with the whole raft of ethical issues arising from social media that have not adequately been debated.

What am I talking about?

  • Managers “Googling” potential candidates to see what their social profiles may say about them. Smart managers ask more questions about candidates who list their hobbies as “getting wasted every night with mates”. Is this an invasion of privacy or should candidates realise that their information is public domain once they have posted it on sites such as MySpace and Facebook?
  • Companies putting in permanent Google Alerts, Blog searches and Twitter searches to alert them whenever their companies’ name is mentioned in the social media – and then disciplining or sacking people who vent their anger at the boss in social media.  Recently a US coach was fined for an ill-considered comment on Twitter about the referee after a match.
  • Companies are starting to hire Social Media Managers and teams to find and respond to customer complaints in social media. But what happens if they cross over the line into deliberately planting waves of positive stories? We all know spin happens – but where is the grey line between spin, propaganda and bald faced lies?  How do these strategies blend with corporate Codes of Conduct? What happens to the person who disagrees with completing a positive spin directive on moral or ethical grounds.
  • Social media team members in  a company building a fantastic following on Twitter while they talk about their company – then being hired to work elsewhere. Who owns the followers – the company or the individual?
  • Employees responding to questions on forums and sites like LinkedIn arguing that this is building the company profile, when they really are aiming to build their online personal profile and expertise (and then leave).
  • Insider trading becomes much murkier, as people track comments by employees about their organisation in the social media, which can then impact on share prices.
  • Managers deliberately searching out the Twitter and Facebook accounts of their team and either joining as a friend/follower or just regularly checking in to see what is being said/done. Visa Versa for employees doing the same for managers accounts.

At this point of time, the ethical discussion about what is acceptable and appropriate within companies and within society around social media has not yet been had. There are some blanket policies in HR manuals and employee manuals, but in most cases managers have not had any discussion with their team about the relevance and impact of these policies.

Many managers are flying blind and don’t yet know what questions to ask to even begin the discussion with their team. Given at least 40% of all small businesses don’t yet own a website, let alone any form of social media presence – how many of these managers will have the knowledge or skills to be able to deal with these questions when they arise in their company?

For example, I put in a Twitter search to track people tweeting about their performance reviews. Comments like:

“I have to worry about costs on my performance review? #FAIL! I only deploy projects on free software from now on. No support contracts.”

“I sure hope the new bosses will review our payscales. @ev STILL hasn’t done my lastperformance review”

“I have my annual performance review today. No raises, so what’s the point?”

Performance review was totally boring.”

“Annual performance review meeting coming up top of the hour. Bogosity shall ensue I’m sure.”

“There’s one person I work with who I’d really like to vote off the island. Typically, she’s now responsible for my performance review. Blah.”

“Just got a message from YMCA saying I have a performance review tomorrow- only worked once in the last 7 months. It’ll probably be bad.”

These are all just samples from a 3 day period. It isn’t hard to figure out where these people work – in most cases it is recorded in their profiles. How would you as a manager feel if one of your employees tweeted to the world about you and your reviews in that way? What action would you take? Would you even know how to find out what they were saying?

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