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ReConnect Africa is a unique website and online magazine for the African professional in the Diaspora. Packed with essential information about careers, business and jobs, ReConnect Africa keeps you connected to the best of Africa.


Where should we draw the line between sharing what’s on our mind online and the rights (and wrath) of our bosses if they don’t like what we say?

When is free speech not quite so free?

Ask the former Google engineer who recently penned a memo with misogynist ideas leading to a backlash on Twitter and his rapid firing. Or the man who was fired for recommending an online discount deal from a rival butcher to his girlfriend on Facebook. Or Heather Armstrong who lost her job a few years ago after posting information about her former employer on her blog. Her advice to others using social networking to talk about their company? Don’t be stupid – or expect consequences if you anger your employer with the contents of your blog.

Living in an era when even the so-called President of the free world is tweeting away, where should we draw the line between sharing what’s on our mind with our online pals and followers and the rights (and wrath) of our bosses if they don’t like what we say?

A Deloitte LLP Ethics & Workplace survey revealed that 60% of business executives believe they have a right to know how employees portray themselves and their organisations on online social networks. Unsurprisingly, employees disagree, with more than half (53%) saying that their social networking pages are none of their employer’s concern. Again, no surprises that this finding is especially true among younger workers, with 63% of 18-34-year-old respondents stating that employers have no business monitoring their online activity.

Risky Business

Employers have every business wanting to safeguard the reputation of their companies and employment tribunals have established that employers can take action to protect their business where employees overstep the mark outside of work on social media. Free speech doesn’t equal being protected from the social or business consequences of said speech when it harms your company or is out of line with their values. Indeed, one could argue that disparaging your employer while still working for them and wounding the golden goose that provides the pay cheques isn’t a particularly smart move on the part of any employee.

But is this unfiltered information sharing willful or just thoughtless? On one hand, says the survey, one-third of employees surveyed never consider what their boss or customers might think before posting material online. Yet most of those who responded were pretty clear about the risks involved in using online social networks, as 74% of respondents believe they make it easier to damage a company's reputation – a fact not lost on Sharon Allen, Chairman of the Board of Deloitte.

Posting videos or observations on a social networking site can create far reaching and damning consequences for individuals and employers

"With the explosive growth of online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter rapidly blurring the lines between professional and private lives,” she says, “these virtual communities have increased the potential of reputational risk for many organisations and their brands."

The explosion in social networking and the speed with which information is shared and transmitted globally leaves brands vulnerable. While posting videos or observations on a social networking site is a personal decision, it can create far reaching and damning consequences for both individuals and their employers.

Let’s take blogging. Once a blog has been posted, friends and strangers alike can read it, comment on it and send on the link to others. What might have been an impulsive angry comment or a disgruntled rant about an irritating manager is now circulated globally and accessible forever. Information that could be negative about a company policy or even an individual is now out there and shaping the opinion of potential recruits about the company or the person in question.

Back to the Future

Online postings can come back to haunt you – as a number of politicians have discovered to their cost. Pictures taken after a few pints during your student days suddenly look a lot less funny splashed across national newspapers when you are trying to be taken seriously. Those out job hunting or pushing for a promotion should also take note that it is getting quite common for supervisors and employers to use search engines to look up existing and prospective employees.

If employers are – rightly – worried about the negative impact of denigrating tweets and scornful blogs on carefully crafted corporate images and multi-million branding and advertising campaigns, what can or should they be doing about it?

Many firms are still struggling with the problem of how to wrest staff away from their Facebook, My Space or LinkedIn accounts while on company time without having to block access to half the internet. When trying to curb the need for your employees to send and follow multiple tweets during the day is already a problem, what price actually monitoring what the people are saying to the hundreds and thousands of individuals they are connected to?

Pictures taken after a few pints during your student days suddenly look a lot less funny splashed across national newspapers when you are trying to be taken seriously.

Astonishingly, the survey reports that only a mere 17% of the executives surveyed said they have programmes in place to monitor and mitigate the possible reputational risks related to the use of social networks. In the absence of high profile cases like Heather Armstrong, the effectiveness of the policies that do exist is questionable - nearly half (49%) of employees indicate that defined guidelines will not change their online behaviour.

Policies and Policing

But doing nothing is not an option if employers want to avoid litigation resulting from comments posted online by their employees. Rather than having to write the rules after the deed has been done, employers need to be clear with their staff about what is and is not acceptable - whether or not it is done in office time.

Companies should have policies in place that fit their needs. These should include how to regulate what an employee writes about your company on their social networking profile page or blog. A clear policy on internet use that addresses all media, whether social networking sites, e-mail or texts, and whether staff members are on or off-duty, will make the company’s position clear and help protect it from liability for employees’ postings.

While some companies have policies that require employees to identify themselves when discussing the company in any public forum (including online forums) and to notify readers that they are speaking in an individual capacity, not as a company representative, others come down heavily on employees who post anything about their company or colleagues.

So, bloggers and tweeters, beware. Anything your employer deems to be slanderous, confidential, a trade secret or intellectual property will likely land you in hot water. Blogs, tweets or retweets that can be seen as disparaging or harassing managers or colleagues could also rebound fast on the author. While being known for the company you keep matters less in your private life, as some have found to their cost, your choice of virtual friends can be your career undoing.

Author of the novels From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books ‘I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

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