Monday Mornings with Madison

Social Media Etiquette for Professionals

Word Count: 1,511
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

It is estimated that by next year, about 3 billion people globally will be using social media sites; joining, reading, scrolling, commenting, sharing, and posting on one or more sites regularly.  While there are still some social media holdouts – these are people who refuse to be on social media because they say they don’t want to know what their friends are eating but were also the ones who refused to get a cell phone until 2002 – that audience is growing smaller every day.  Which sites are most popular varies by country, age group, functionality, and purpose.  In the U.S., there are multitude of popular social media sites.  LinkedIn.  Facebook.  Pinterest.  TicTok.  Twitter.  Instagram.  Snapchat.  Tumblr.  WhatsApp.  Reddit.  YouTube.  Messenger.  Nextdoor.  Quora.  Twitch.  Flickr.  Yelp.   The list goes on and on.

More importantly, according to Broadband Search, the average time spent on social media sites by U.S. users in 2019 was 116 minutes daily.  That is almost 14 hours per week or about 58 hours a month.  And, it comes to about one entire month per year.  Let that sink in.  In 2019, the average person in the U.S. spent the equivalent of ONE ENTIRE MONTH (24/7) of their time on social media. If people are spending that much time on social media, then what people do and say on those sites matters or should matter especially to their employers.  After all, anything an employee posts can be seen and read potentially by millions within minutes.   And what an employee posts reflects not only on that individual, but it could also reflect on his/her employer.

Case in point.  A Denver Post sports writer, who won Colorado’s sportswriter of the year award seven times, was fired from his job for tweeting a disparaging comment about a Japanese driver winning the 2017 Daytona 500 auto race.  Given the nature of his job and his vast experience, one would think that the writer would have known his tweet was inappropriate and did not reflect well on his employer.  And, while freedom of speech is the bedrock of American society, there can be consequences to unfiltered speech.  Indeed, most organizational leaders don’t want employees writing posts that are inappropriate, disparaging or insulting.  But, the problem is that this criteria can be open to interpretation.  A comment by one person that is made off the cuff can be viewed as insulting to others.  On the other hand, asking staff not to post at all is not an option.  After all, social media has become a fundamental part of ‘doing business,’ whether in the world of commerce, education, government or charity.  As author Ryan Lilly put it, “Social media is not just a spoke on the wheel of marketing. It’s becoming the way entire bicycles are built.”   So, rather than provide more guidance as to what is or isn’t acceptable for employees to post on social media, many companies rely instead on employees to ‘use their judgment’.  This can also be problematic.

Judgment and Social Media

The problem with asking employees to use their judgment in deciding what is and isn’t okay to post on social media is that judgment varies from person to person.  It just makes sense that some folks will have better judgment than others.  It’s human nature.  And those who fall short can make big social media mistakes.

For example, recent research confirms what most people already knew… that teen and young adult brains work differently than that of adults.  The rational part of a young adult’s brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 or so.  Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, which is the rational part of the brain. This is the part that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences.   But, young adults and teenagers process information with the amygdala during those years (age 13-25 or so), which is the part of the brain that processes emotions. For them, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing — and not always at the same rate. That’s why when young adults have overwhelming emotional input which causes them to react, they often can’t explain later what they were thinking. That’s because they weren’t really thinking as much as they were feeling.

Even people well over the age of 25 do not all possess the same level of judgment and wisdom.  Wisdom and judgment are two of the hardest qualities to define, much less cultivate. One working definition of wisdom, based on extensive research, is that it is a set of specific, learnable ways of thinking and acting that is used in combination to make decisions and recommendations that are likely to produce positive outcomes or sensible conclusions in uncertain, ambiguous, and changing circumstances.  Judgment is the decision-making part that produces the reasonable outcome.  Based on that, some people may not necessarily have the best judgment, which has nothing to do with IQ, skills, training or any other qualifications.   Asking individual to decide on their own what is and isn’t okay to post on social media can create problems.

Case in point.  A nurse working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a hospital posted “Sooooo sleepy here in the ICU.  Will someone please code and give me something exciting to do?” What’s worse, she tagged the hospital where she worked in the post.  It is not surprising that she was terminated from her job.  What was perhaps a little surprising is that someone with a college degree and highly specialized training to work as an ICU nurse lacked the good judgment to recognize the insensitivity of her post, or how it could adversely reflect on and affect her employer.  Being perceived as having a caring staff is critically important to any hospital.

Social Media Etiquette

That’s where communicating Social Media Etiquette guidelines can be useful to curtail mistakes and misunderstandings.  How simple or complex those guidelines are will depend on how carefully the organization needs to safeguard its reputation and brand identity.  For example, a Synagogue, Church or Mosque might have some very strong views about what employees should and should not post on social media since those entities are in the ‘business’ of guiding constituents on moral and ethical behavior.  Similarly, media companies might also have very definite views on what is and is not okay for employees to post on social media given that these entities are in the business of investigating and exposing when people and organizations do wrong and should reflect a high level of integrity and character.  And companies across a multitude of industries such as healthcare, finance, education, etc. may have a vested interest in ensuring that their employees represent the brand in a trustworthy and caring way.

So here are some tips for professionals to ensure that posts don’t cause problems with employers.

1. Keep private information private

Don’t post organization-specific or client-specific information that is not public knowledge.  Even the Social Media Manager should ensure information in posts and tweets are approved for public consumption.  If it’s unclear if it is okay to post a certain type of information on social media, then don’t.

2. Don’t overshare

Having a consistent presence on chosen social networks makes sense but oversharing doesn’t.  Consider what frequency makes the most sense for each social media site, since it varies by site.

3.  Post items of real importance

A social network can provide quick updates on a project’s status and other topics of interest. That purpose is defeated if you post about trivial matters throughout the day. Make sure a post is something of value that will benefit your network, such as a tip, a status or a helpful link.

4.   Share with care

Be as discerning about the volume and type of information shared on social media as in emails and face-to-face communications.  If it’s in writing, it should be carefully considered and vetted.  And limit what audience segments on a platform sees any given message.  Avoid indiscriminate posts.

5.   Consider carefully what personal information is shared

With the creation of a social media account comes the possibility that one’s image as a professional will conflict with the image as a friend or family member.  Even when posting about personal, non-work-related topics, don’t forget who else might see the post including work colleagues.  Professionals do best to abstain from posting truly personal information.  Even private posts can go viral.

6.  Don’t alienate potential clients and business partners

Social media offers a way to quickly and creatively connect with business partners and prospective clients who can be hard to reach.  But social media platforms also provide many opportunities to offend them in a variety of ways, including conveying personal information in an impersonal way.  Be careful what is shared and how.  Take social media conversations offline once as soon as it is practical so that it is more personal.

Last but not least, for those who want their etiquette guidelines simplified, make sure posts adhere to these four key points.  Every post should be kind, true, unrestricted and necessary.

Quote of the Week
“We all have a responsibility with the words we post on the Internet. If you wouldn’t want your mother, daughter, sister or friend to read it, don’t post it.” Germany Kent


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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