With increasing pace, I’ve seen more people use their voices online to stand up for what they believe is right and participate in fierce conversation and debate. I’ve also seen a shift in organizations’ behaviour in response to the expectations of consumers that companies will interact online, speak up on issues, and make business decisions that are rooted in values that align with those of their customers. These trends have me thinking about the challenges individuals and organizations face in how they participate in the social and political climate of today. One particular challenge is around corporate social media policies that strive to find the right balance of influence over how employees engage online, and individuals who are asserting themselves when they feel those policies go too far.
Seeing it from both sides
From one perspective, organizations benefit when its employees become informal brand ambassadors; employees amplify the good work the company is doing and promote a positive image through their online social networks. The other side of the coin is an organization may not want its brand associated with an employee’s personal views and certainly not with an employee’s bad online behaviour (or proof surfacing of bad offline behaviour); these affiliations could paint the organization in a bad light, call its values into question, and damage its brand. An example that comes to mind is Elon Musk and the impact his behaviour has on Tesla’s reputation. To that end, organizations seek to craft and maintain guidelines for employees that are reasonable, demonstrate trust for its people, and don’t go too far that they risk the perception they’re censoring a person’s right to freedom of expression.
From another perspective, people are still coming to terms with the ramifications of the age of the internet and social media. A person’s actions, views, and conversations used to be private (for the most part) unless that person chose to share them publicly. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have created tension due to the shift to sharing online and a lag in the shift of the mindsets of those doing the sharing, which can then affect a person’s current and future employment. Understandably, people want to be who they are and assert their right to speak up for what they believe in; and they’ll naturally push back against anyone telling them what they can and can’t say. Unfortunately, this rubs up against the fact that what a person says and does online is very much public and very much recorded, including instances captured by a stranger nearby with a smartphone.
It’s little wonder then that it’s increasingly difficult for organizations to effect policies that keep pace with rapidly evolving norms and for individuals to realign their expectations with the new reality. I’m not suggesting we actually do this, but it does seem some people need a reminder before they post that says, “You’re accountable for what you say and do online. Think about how it could impact you and others. Do you want to continue?”
Which brings me to the question…
Does declaring “views are my own” give an individual separation between corporate and personal identities and signal loudly enough that what they say and do online shouldn’t be construed to represent the views and values of their employer? Does that line of thinking make any sense given that organizations are, at their core, made up of people whose values are carried into and shape the workplace every day? When I consider the varying profile and influence that people have inside and outside of a company, I don’t see how you can realistically achieve that separation with a legalish-sounding phrase clumsily tacked onto an online bio.
So, if separation can’t be achieved, does this lead us to a state where people heavily shift away from standing for anything publicly and instead hide behind pseudonyms privately? We see instances of this today with alternate accounts used to express what a person truly believes and anonymous trolls on all sides filling our feeds with rhetoric. Isn’t it therefore logical to think this trend will continue? My view is, no, I don’t believe that it will. My rationale is that society wants public examples of great leadership and people whose positive influence inspires others to express themselves openly and take action. Customers, by extension, want organizations that have courageous leaders who are willing to risk this quarter’s earnings goal if it means their company and team members stand up for what’s right for people, not just what’s good for business.
Without a doubt, there are more questions and fierce debates ahead as we explore this as individuals, in our workplaces, and across society. With an ever more connected world, boundaries between personal and organizational identities will continue to be blurred and reshaped. What’s become clear for me – and something I’ll continue to make clear through my words and actions – is that I want to be connected to people and organizations that share my values of making a positive difference in the world, engaging in healthy debate, and standing up for what’s right (regardless of where or how that occurs). My views and values are my own, and they’re reflected in the people and organizations I choose to be affiliated with. That’s where the balance is for me. No pseudonym or disclaimer needed.