Why do employees risk their jobs on Facebook?

Bruce WilsonLast week the news media covered yet another collision between executive and employee expectations surrounding social media: an HR assistant at Lloyds Banking Group in the UK was fired for criticizing her CEO’s salary in a Facebook post.

This incident yet again raises titillating, frustrating, hair-raising issues about how personal social media use can affect employment status. But let’s focus on just a couple of issues in this post to keep it down to a decent length.

Is it illegal in the US (note: the firing mentioned above happened in the UK) to fire employees for expressing an honest criticism of their employer? No, usually it’s not illegal. US employers can fire “at-will” employees for any reason except for their race or gender and certain other protected categories. Criticizing the boss for making too much money? That’s not protected. Walk right up to your boss and tell them to their face that they’re overpaid? Rent a billboard or buy a newspaper ad telling the world that your boss is overpaid? Post it to the Internet? Proclaim it loudly in a bar or lunch room where someone who might repeat it to your boss might hear it? No difference: no protection.

So if this is so obvious, then what happened here? If this was such a big mistake, why did the employee commit it? Why does this sort of thing happen, and keep happening daily, whereever there is social media? Unless you believe that CEOs everywhere will now seek to limit their own pay to avoid negative publicity, it’s pretty clear that there were no winners in this situation.  Nobody gained from the combo of Facebook post and termination in this story. The CEO, Corporate Communications, and everyone else on down the line surely regret this ever happened–although probably not as much as the person who was fired.

Why did it happen? Because employed folks, even highly trained professionals, frequently don’t digest how these things work, even when there are workplace rules about social media. It’s not that employees aren’t capable of learning, there are just too many old habits for the “blah blah blah” of social media policies in the workplace to make much of a dent. Case in point for people working in the US: raise your hand if you’ve ever noticed the (mandatory) OSHA and FLSA posters that employers (even white collar employers) are required post where everyone can see them (often in a break room). OK, not many hands. Now, what topics are covered on those posters? OK, now put your hands down if you aren’t an employee relations specialist (from HR or Legal)? Don’t be shy, raise them high. Any hands still up? So here’s the point: legalese doesn’t click with people. It doesn’t change behavior. And without any reason not to, people just do what comes naturally. They’re used to conversations with friends being (mostly) consequence-free, so they assume their social media posts will be consequence-free also.

Letting your friends know over lunch what you think of the boss? Unlikely to lead to termination. There aren’t very many listeners at one time, and they are face to face, such that listeners feel personally responsible for how they handle the information. Meanwhile, listeners feel more inhibited about “telling” on their friends, because they sense that they are being trusted to keep silent, and/or they realize they might get caught.

Letting your friends know what you think of your boss on the Internet? On the talking end it feels the same to most people as if they are talking to their friends in person. But in fact it is much more likely to lead to consequences, up to and including termination. There are more listeners, sometimes hundreds, encouraging individual listeners to feel anonymous and unaccountable. And listeners feel less inhibited about passing on the information, if only because they’re less likely to get caught—it’s more like repeating something you read in a newspaper that’s available to everyone.

In addition, more and more companies are investing in progressively more detailed social media monitoring technology which makes it increasingly likely that companies will discover employee criticisms even without hearing about it from other employees.

Thus there is a gaping chasm between the tendency of people to share secrets in social media, as they would in person, and their lack of expectations of negative consequences.

Probably our children will grow up with a better understanding of this dynamic, but what’s the solution for the current workforce–on the Corporate side?

Education and training. Posting an employee policy isn’t enough. Stimulating the exercise of good judgment is the solution. Companies need to send a steady, consistent stream of information about this. It’s about building a self-maintaining culture, not about legalese. A clear, concise policy is first. Training is second. An information campaign, including horror stories about what NOT to do, is next. Then, ideally, peers and even bosses give feedback to individual employees about what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t. By way of analogy, people don’t learn to play football by reading the rules of the game. They watch others, they practice, and they get coaching.

Proactive businesses won’t wait for widely publicized employee terminations, with collateral damage in the forms of negative publicity and massive internal distraction, to get the message about social media across to their employees.

What do you think? What’s the problem we’re facing, what solutions are best? What’s fair?

2 Replies to “Why do employees risk their jobs on Facebook?”

  1. “Tailoring the message for your audience” and focusing on what you want your audience to gain from your message rather than using social media to vent, seems like common sense. But like my friend says, common sense is not common practice. Thanks for the article!

    1. Thanks Roger. You make a good point: what happened to the common sense? In the Lloyds example the person was feeling offended, apparently, that her CEO’s hourly is more than 500 times her own. Perhaps that overcame her common sense?

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