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Social Media, Ethics, and the Workplace

Managing the Workplace Ethics of Social Media

Online social media applications are quickly gaining the mindshare of company employees and changing just as rapidly.  With all the benefits that social media is bringing to the corporate world, a company faces numerous risks in its use, from misuse of company resources, to conflicts of interest and disparagement of others. Social media is a challenging topic because it crosses over so many ethics and compliance issues.  But like any other ethics and compliance topic, it must be proactively managed for a company to safeguard its reputation and provide its employees with the tools to manage their own personal and business activities.

For many companies, social media tools can provide new ways of connecting with potential and current customers, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders.  They offer companies the opportunity to speed up the pace of business, better establish the message that a company wants to convey, strengthen a company’s relationships with customers and others and further facilitate a continuous conversation about the business.

But social media when not well managed opens the door to numerous risks – breach of confidentiality, conflicts of interest, misuse of company resources, to name a few of the more obvious ones. A company without an initiative to effectively identify, assess and manage its approach to social media and its various tools not only loses out on its many opportunities they offer but faces numerous risks to and improper business practices and activities that may damage the business.  A program to harness these risks does not need to be onerous or intrusive, but it does need to be proportional to the company’s exposure.  Further, a company should expect the social media arena to continue to change both in technologies, their uses, business providers and ways social media impacts the business landscape.

The social media dimension is broad including:

  • Communication, such as blogs, micro-blogs, social networking and events.
  • Multimedia, including video, photography, music/audio sharing and presentation sharing and livecasting.
  • Entertainment, for example, media platforms, virtual worlds and game sharing.
  • Collaboration, like wikis, social news and bookmarking/tagging.

Company management may be familiar with some of the most prevalent applications – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and MySpace – but how many know about Open Diary, Tumbler, BigTent, Wetpaint, Mixx, Vimeo,, ccMixter,, or Forterra? Chances are that a company’s younger employees know about many of these applications and more – and are actively using them. Further, as smartphones become more ubiquitous in the workplace, employees’ access to the Internet and its social media applications will speed up the media’s adoption – and create more difficulty for a company to monitor workplace use.

Currently, a number of U.S. laws and regulations are being applied to the media’s applications. Regulation FD responds to the communication of company financial or other key operational information outside of the company. Intellectual property laws address how employees may communicate a company’s IP across social media. FINRA, the securities self-regulatory organization, recently adopted a regulatory notice on use of blogs and social networking sites.  But companies should expect the legal and regulatory environment to continue to broaden around social media as its impact on the business world becomes better understood.

Each company needs to consider three ways in which social media can impact it. First, it needs to address how employees use social media for their personal, non-company use.  Second, it should consider how it and its employees use social media for the company’s business objectives. Third is the use of social media where a company needs to set rights and responsibilities for the non-employees it invites to engage in its social media activities.

A review of numerous companies’ social media policies3 indicates numerous risks that a company may face with employees’ use – whether for their personal or business purposes – of social media.

  • Accessing social media, like Facebook, for personal use while at work.  Using a company computer, personal digital assistant or Smartphone to access social media, with risks of excessive bandwidth use, equipment ‘wear and tear’ or breakage, or access to improper social media (such as ‘adult’ or ‘hate’ sites). Using
  • Using without permission the company name, logo, trademarks, copyrighted information or other intellectual property in blogs, discussion boards or other social networking sites that can infringe on the company’s rights to and control over these assets.
  • Using one’s company email address or a username that refers to one’s employment with the company.
  • Using a company computer, network, personal digital assistant or smartphone to access social media, with risks of introducing possible malicious software or other rogue applications, especially for social media that involves accessing or downloading files.
  • Disclosing this information a) on discussion boards or in chat rooms, or b) as part of professional social networking activity though, not authorized to disclose it.
  • Inappropriately discussing colleagues, customers, suppliers or other stakeholders or competitors with colleagues or individuals outside the company on discussion boards, in chat rooms or through blogs. 
  • Posting or discussing others or displaying certain social media at work that can lead to claims of harassment.
  • Conflicts of interest can take many forms and can cross with other forms of misconduct, from use of company resources, use of one’s work position and other personal interests that conflict with one’s duty to the company.
  • Blogging or maintaining a website favorable to or critical of or posting information about an industry, company or related issues without disclosing one’s employment with an interested company.
  • Serving in an outside professional role such as an expert on a topical discussion board that conflicts with one’s duty to his or her company.
  • Maintaining a blog that accepts advertising from his or her company’s competition.
  • Using instant messaging, a chat room, a discussion board or other social media to make recommendations or otherwise market to current or prospective customers, in violation of company policy (whether the message or the channel).
  • Communicating critically about a competitor’s product or service on a discussion board and without disclosing one’s employment with a competing company.
  • ‘Shopping’ a competitor by pretending to be a potential customer and misrepresenting oneself in doing so.
  • Posting a false review about a competitor’s product or service.
  • Posting personal information or about personal activities that leads one’s company, a recruiting company or others to believe that the individual is acting unprofessionally or otherwise inappropriately.  This situation can hurt the employer where the employee’s personal reputation is tarnished and so affects the individual’s business reputation.

Companies should establish clear policies and procedures with respect to the use of social media including: (1) clarifying the distinction between use of social media for company versus personal use; (2) monitoring and auditing of employee use; (3) assessing proper company use of social media; (4) compliance with laws and regulations; and (5) educating employee regarding proper and improper use of social media.

The ethical question about social media use in the workplace is whether the benefits of its use outweigh the security challenges. A key is to help people manage the fuzzy boundaries between their public/private and personal/professional lives. Social networking sites can be used in the workplace to collaborate and share ideas. However, sensitive company information might be transmitted to inappropriate parties creating a security risk. The confidentiality rights of the company may be violated and employee rights exploited. The latter must be managed for the benefits to outweigh the costs.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 16, 2012