Bad Behavior, Social Networking and Business

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The other day I had some much- deserved downtime with minimal interruptions from the outside world, so I decided to curl up in an oversized recliner and read. It felt like a guilty pleasure especially since I had a tall refreshing glass of diet Dr. Pepper nearby and my beloved dog, Sally, lounging by my feet. An old TIME magazine from last December caught my eye. The cover showed a crying New Year’s baby, with nothing on but a red party hat and a disposable diaper. Above the baby’s head were the words “The Decade From Hell” “ And why the next one will be better.”  I found myself nodding in agreement as I started to turn the pages looking for articles about bad behavior. What I have observed in the last decade is the consistent rise and acceptance of bad behavior in the workplace from government to private industry and businesses in between.

I have a theory that we have been in the midst of a perfect storm. Economic downturn, deregulation of industries and the arrival of social networking combined to turn the last decade into the age of bad behavior, and the lost of civility and ethics.  I have not come to a conclusion yet, but what I do know is that from 2000-2009 the proliferation of bad behavior permeated the workplace as social networking skyrocketed in popularity. According to Gordon Hamilton in an article he wrote for Helium, Inc., social networking sites were first developed as instruments for teenagers to interact locally and globally. Savvy business marketers soon picked up on the marketing potential due to the mass audience and suddenly social networking became a “must have” line item in a company’s marketing plan. In 2010 not only does a business need a web presence but also visibility on at least one social networking site is a necessity to be competitive. Social networking has a global reach therefore any company can now have an international presence just by signing up. However, My Space and FaceBook, two of the monster social networking sites, were designed for “social” use not business use. There have been consequences for making a social phenomenon a business staple and the outcome has not been all good.

The anonymity of social networking has created a false sense of intimacy both socially and professionally. I am reminded by a line in the movie “For Love of the Game” when Kelly Preston’s character tells Kevin Costner’s character (a baseball player) that he and the ball are a perfect entity. It is the same way with people and the computer. There is a perfect anonymous relationship where everything and anything is possible. People are hypnotized by the ability to say whatever they want to say without facing another human being yet they are socializing. There is no perceivable accountability for what is posted on a social networking site. The result of no filter is bad behavior and in business, often unethical behavior. By blurring the lines between social and professional networking consider the following situations businesses are now encountering:

  • Employees spending work time on social networking sites
  • Employees posting personal pictures and information about themselves on sites
  • Employees participating in anti-social behavior on-line
  • Employees inadvertently telling company information on their social pages
  • Employees sabotaging or harassing other employees on social networking sites
  • Competitive companies surfing the web for company secrets via employee pages

In addition, according to an article by Gene Connors in Workforce Management, “Employers must implement social networking policies…” This constant networking has created a need for organizations to set boundaries in the workplace to protect both their businesses and their employees. Lawyers are working over time developing interpretations of privacy laws to help business legal departments distinguish employer and employee rights in terms of social networking at work. These issues were not foreseen when the marketers invaded the social networking sites.

Back to my TIME article, I was anxious to see if there are any reversible trends towards more civilized behavior on the horizon. The US remains the innovator of technology. Trade publications are addressing the issue of how companies can legally protect themselves from getting trapped in the “too much information” age. High schools and universities are talking to young people about the consequences of living your life on social networking sites. Cyber bullying is not just a “teenage term” it is making its way into business circles and Human Resource departments are beginning to address the issue when discussing harassment with employees.

Since this is just the beginning of the next decade we have to start somewhere to rectify the problem of bad behavior. According to Linda Klebe Trevino and Gail A. Ball in an article printed by the Journal of Management, management’s attention to unethical behavior and subsequent delivery of appropriate punishment to offending employees has a positive effect on changing the behavior norm in an organization. For a change to occur the punishment needs to be perceived as fair and consistent by the other employees. The expectation that the situation will be addressed is as important as the punishment. In the same article rewarding ethical behavior was also discussed. This approach is equally effective as long as management pays attention to reward ethical behavior fairly and consistently. Outcome expectancies on the part of the employees are critical to the success of either approach. 

I am optimistic that we will start to talk civilly one on one to each other again in the near future. The Decade from Hell is over and a new day with limitless possibilities is here. Now that we are aware that social and professional networking need not dance so closely I hope the tide will change and the boundaries will return between personal and professional networking.

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