Common Sense Ethics is a Lost Art
I’m always amused when people tell me that ethics on social media is an oxymoron. I can’t disagree but that doesn’t mean we should nevertheless ignore its importance. Our social media practices define our character in the sense of not lying to others through our posts on social media, not posting offensive comments, and not engaging in cyberbullying. Some people rationalize these practices as part of the games played on social media. Taken to an extreme, these social media practices can do real harm to others – and worse.
One relatively benign example is “catfishing” on social media. Some would say that everyone does it so what’s the harm? Catfishing refers to intentionally deceptive information provided when creating a social media profile, often with the goal of making a romantic connection. When someone says that they have been cat-fished, this tends to mean that they have been duped online by someone who isn’t who they say or present themselves differently.
A catfish creates a fake persona online. The deception can be elaborate and may involve the use of fake photos, fake biographies, and false physical attributes. One of the most comprehensive surveys of online dating sites reports that 81 percent of users lied in their profiles: 48.1 percent lied about their height; 59.7 percent about their weight; and 18.7 percent lied about their age.
An area concern for me as an expert on workplace ethics is that some employees tend to be oblivious as to what might get them in trouble when posting information about their employer online. Millennials are especially susceptible because their social media habits might dictate write first and think about it later.
The National Labor Relations Act protects the rights of employees to act together to address conditions at work, with or without a union. This protection extends to certain work-related conversations conducted on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Employees who act together on workplace issues – by, for example, meeting with a manager to lobby for better benefits or having a group discussion about the company’s safety record – are protected from employer retaliation.
A protected activity is one that is involves a concerted effort expressing more than one employee’s concerns. An employee who complains about his or her own performance evaluation is not taking concerted action. But an employee who complains, after consulting with or on behalf of coworkers, that the company’s performance evaluation system unfairly penalizes employees who speak up in safety meetings is engaged in concerted action. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) puts it, “personal gripes” are not protected. Even if employees are clearly acting in a concerted way, they won’t be protected if they cross the line from constructive behavior to malicious or reckless actions.
Here are a few examples of where employees have gotten into trouble because of their social media posts that were discussed in an article in Forbes magazine.
- In early February 2015, a Texas pizzeria owner “terminated” an employee before she’d even had her first day of work after she tweeted vulgarities about her future job.
- In January 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a Mississippi police sergeant, fired in 2012 after she posted Facebook comments criticizing her police chief, had no First Amendment protections for her statements.
- In December 2014, Nordstrom fired an Oregon employee who had posted a Facebook comment seeming to advocate violence against white police officers.
I’ve always felt that being an ethical person involves what I call “common sense” ethics. Simply stated: be respectful of others; be civil to others; and treat others the way you want to be treated. If we keep these guidelines in mind, whether it’s social media or other forms of ethics such as workplace ethics, then the number of instances where basic ethics rules have been violated would be greatly reduced. Alas, this requires common sense and common decency, a lost art in today’s society.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 12, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website to find out more about other blogs, sign up for his Newsletter and learn about his professional services.