In focus: Social sabotage

People are hopelessly addicted to social media – and they know it. What they fail to realise is that their pics, tweets and posts are putting businesses in jeopardy and ruining hard-won reputations.

 

Each day, 80 million photos are uploaded to Instagram, 500 million tweets are sent, and 4.75 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook. Amid this near-chronic oversharing are unflattering photos, ill-advised tweets and potentially offensive Facebook posts. It’s easier than ever to instantly, and permanently, ruin one’s reputation.

Experts warn that when individuals overshare, they supercharge the odds that one post today could ensure a nightmare tomorrow.

“The key risk is that the one post that does not represent you 99 per cent of the time is the exact one that your clients, boss or future employer ends up seeing,” says Fiona McLean, chief executive of The Social Index.

Social media consultant Anna Cairo agrees. “Sharing pictures, such as being intoxicated; liking, tweeting or sharing sexist, racist or inappropriate content; this all creates an image of who you are as a person,” she says. “If your image isn’t positive – and this is a perception – then it’s likely to have a negative impact on your professional life, even if it’s just an unconscious bias towards you.”
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Update addiction: unhealthy, unwise

McLean and other social media experts warn that individuals are simply not heeding the warnings when it comes to oversharing on social media. In fact, people find it nearly impossible to hold back from oversharing on their ‘socials’ – and potentially harming their future selves. Research from Harvard University gives us an insight into why this may be the case – it found that sharing our personal thoughts and feelings on social media triggers the brain’s reward system.

The end result is a growing list of case studies of people who overstepped the mark on social media. People have been jailed for threatening to assassinate the US President, fired for expressing controversial views on commemorating Anzac Day, and shunned for disclosing confidential medical records on their social media accounts.

This type of behaviour is not just a potential disaster for the individual. When individuals overshare, businesses can be horribly exposed.

Nick Wailes is the Associate Dean (Digital & Innovation) at the UNSW Business School. In his view, the way people linked to a business act online has a “direct impact” on the business itself. “As a result of individuals oversharing online, a business could suffer reputational damage – for example, when an employee vents about a customer – through to competitive damage and fraud,” says Wailes.

On this point, McLean cites the example of social media giant Twitter who had to fire a senior executive in October 2016 after an offensive rant against homeless people surfaced online. “Yes, the employee had started to rectify their behaviour and comments, but the reputational damage to Twitter was already too great,” she says.

The overarching issue here is that all businesses, and many employees, have to engage with social media. A business must have a social media presence, employees are expected to be active on LinkedIn and executives may be encouraged to actively post to their social media networks to raise their profile.
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Beware business-endorsed oversharing

Nina Anderson, a communications and strategy expert who runs Anderson Advisory, warns that this unfettered drive to take up social media could result in “company-endorsed oversharing”.

“I was at an event recently where a very large business was encouraging at least 200 of its corporate staff to get online, set up their profiles, use LinkedIn Premium for job hunting and be active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” she recounts.

“This is an accident waiting to happen. It’s incredibly high risk to tell staff to be customer-centric in this manner, when most people don’t know how to write a profile, what to share or where the boundaries are. The businesses have various tracking tools to sniff out the activities of their staff and these employees lose their jobs. This happens a lot.”

So what’s the solution? Should businesses take a dictatorial approach and attempt to restrict employees’ use of social media? Should they create detailed clauses in employment contracts to steer employees away from oversharing their lives and embarrassing their workplaces?

“Unless you want a mutiny, it’s not feasible to limit how employees use social media,” Nina Anderson says. “Social media is a part of life now and people will resent it if you try to take it away. Education and support are key ways to encourage more thoughtful use of social media, which will likely result in reduced use.”

The Social Index’s Fiona McLean also warns that by restricting the use of social media to disable its perils, businesses could be inadvertently switching off its benefits. This includes connecting remote teams, sharing common interests among employees and creating a sense of inclusion..

Damage control 101

To successfully engage with social media, while effectively protecting their employees and hard-earned reputations, businesses should start with the basics. That is, they should make sure employees are crystal clear on the risks and consequences of social media use.

“The first step is to educate people on the implications of social media usage,” Digital Visibility Group’s Victoria Christensen says. “It might sound basic, but many people are not aware that there are potential problems that can arise.”

McLean agrees, and states that employers should go further and promote the positives of social media channels. “The most effective way to keep it active for all employees and mitigate the business risk is to help employees understand how to use social media and what your social media footprint means for their careers as well as the business,” she explains. “Helping employees build or enhance their professional reputation, especially on professional platforms like LinkedIn, can materially help a business expand its client base or attract high-calibre employees to the team.”

And perhaps the simplest advice employers can provide to their charges is the best. Nick Wailes from the UNSW Business School urges individuals to apply a straightforward test before they share anything.

“Essentially it’s safe to assume that anything you share online is available to anyone and that it never goes away. This means that before sharing something online you really need to ask yourself, ‘Am I prepared to shout this out to a room of people I don’t know?’” That, after all, is the million-dollar question. Are you ready to answer it?

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