Social media costs -- and some workers are paying with their jobs

By Tom Kaneshige, CIO |  Unified Communications, Social Networking

After 12 years on the job, DeMetra "Meech" Christopher says she was fired from Xerox's call center in Lexington, Ky., for posting a picture of herself at work on Instagram and hashtagging the company name.

Christopher says that other employees have posted pictures on Instagram, but management decided to fire her for identifying Xerox. Christopher says she has enlisted a privacy lawyer.

Xerox declined to comment specifically about the case or even confirm Christopher ever worked for the company., but it did provide CIO.com with a copy of its social networking policy for employees who have social media responsibilities as part of their jobs. Xerox does have a strict policy concerning tech devices in the call center. Given the sensitive nature of data, including credit card numbers, the company says it does not allow personal phones, tablets (even paper ones) and cameras in the workplace.

The conflict between Christopher and Xerox underscores a much wider problem. An employee's personal use of social networks and a company's desire to protect its public image have created a dangerous new intersection that threatens to derail any goodwill built up over the years between employee and management. Employees tend to take the brunt of collisions, as Christopher recently found out.

The number of those crashes is growing. CNN put together a list of 10 people who learned social media can get you fired. Among them are these four examples:

Barista Matt Watson anonymously blogged about dealing with difficult customers, was outed by sprudge.com and fired for writing about his place of employment during work hours.

Tenth-grade math teacher Carly McKinney posted racy photos and tweets about marijuana. She was ultimately fired.

California Pizza Kitchen server Timothy DeLaGhetto claims he was fired for tweeting about the company's "lamest ever" new uniforms.

Perhaps most pertinent to CIO.com readers, two male software developers at a PyCon conference joked about "big dongles" and "forking" -- sexual innuendos with a tech twist -- overheard by SendGrid tech developer Adria Richards. She was offended, took a picture of them and tweeted it. One of the men was fired. Hackers exposed Richards' private information before she was fired for "publicly shaming the offenders," SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin wrote in a blog post.

It's not just the working-class portion of the organizational chart, either. CTO Pax Dickinson at Business Insider was fired in September for making racial slurs and rape jokes on Twitter. Also, CFO Gene Morphis at publicly traded fashion retailer Francesca's Holdings Corp. lost his job last year for casually tweeting about company information.

Employers and Employees Learning as They Go

Generally speaking, most companies want to hire social networking savvy workers, especially in digital marketing roles where social networking offers the most bang for the buck. But social networking started out and continues to be a way for individuals to express theselves - not a corporate marketing engine. Hence, there's a learning curve that both employees and management need to climb quickly.

[Related: BYOD Policy: Employee Right to Social Media Privacy Is Paramount]

"The most efficient way of conciliating these two selves - personal and professional - is to develop a social media policy adapted to the company, whereby what can and cannot be done by employees on social media is clearly clarified, as well as the consequences for ignoring or voluntarily breaking these guidelines," says Steve Nicholls, author of Social Media in Business.

"The fact that there have been several stories of employees getting fired because of their behaviors on social networks only supports the idea that there is a strong need for clarification to be made between companies and employees," he says.

Xerox has social media guidelines for employees who have social media as part of their job descriptions, which cover blogging, micro-blogging, user forums, social networking and audio-video sharing. What about other employees? A Xerox spokesperson says the company has additional internal guidelines but would not confirm the existence of a social media policy for general employees; Christopher says she never saw a social media policy.

[Related: 15 Big Social Media Mistakes Companies Make and How to Avoid Them ]

Xerox has a 23-page Code of Business Conduct policy that doesn't mention social media or social networking but does provide a highly general ethical decision-making framework, one that relies on common sense and public scrutiny. Here's a sample:

"Take the public scrutiny test: If you wouldn't want to read about your action on the front page of your local newspaper, don't do it."

Social Networking Isn't Going Away

Some companies simply ban social networking in the workplace, says Nicholls, thinking such problems will simply disappear. But that's the wrong approach, he says. For starters, a workplace ban won't stop employees from accessing social media on their smartphones during lunch breaks, after-hours and on weekends.

"The only thing [companies] will succeed in doing by taking such an approach is to establish an atmosphere of mistrust, which is very counterproductive at a time where businesses are encourages to be more transparent and open," Nicholls says. "In order to move forward with the social revolution that is impacting the business world, companies need to open up their organizational culture."

Then again, companies can go overboard embracing the social revolutions. There's an odd role-reversal happening right now with social networking in the enterprise: Some companies are asking employees to leverage their personal Twitter and Facebook accounts as a megaphone for marketing messages.

"This is an interesting problem that is emerging on the social media landscape," Nicholls says. "There can be benefits for employees in using their personal accounts for business purposes, but companies cannot oblige their employees to draw on their personal social networks for corporate advantage."

Some employees have huge Twitter followings -- they're known as social media "influencers" -- and digital marketers covet them. Employee influencers can score points with management by tapping their networks to promote their companies. But there might be a catch: If employees give consent, companies might make tell them what words they can and cannot use on their personal accounts.

"Social media is relatively a fresh field, and both companies and employees are still learning how to deal with it in the most satisfying way for both parties," Nicholls says.

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