Time for Social Media Civility

“My boss is a jerk and this company stinks. I’m outta here. What a rotten week. Oh well, Monday it all starts up again.”
“Here’s Dylan at the party: Give him a few beers and watch out.”
“They’re squeezing us dry. This place is a rat hole.  What a bunch of thieves.”
“Take a look at this photo of Carl 20 years ago. What a wild man! Has he changed or what?”
Comments like these often show up on social networks, in text messages and on the web. And they don’t go away.
Paraphrasing one of the characters in “Social Network,” a must-see movie about the world on the web and how we connect: “It’s not in ink. It’s on the Internet and it’s permanent.”
Increasingly, we’re seeing legal cases focus on what employers can and can’t do in response to negative Facebook postings. Recently, in a complaint against a Connecticut ambulance service, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that, in some instances employees commenting negatively about employers can be engaging in protected, concerted activity.  As a result, disciplining an employee for posts on a social networking site, even if extremely negative about an employer, its leaders or the way it does business, can be an illegal and unfair labor practice.
As web-based communication and social networking explode, evolve and proliferate, issues that lie outside the boundaries of legal limits will continue to arise. Reactive and incremental, the law is simply not suited to manage or anticipate the volume of legal and ethical issues generated by new communication media. Their immediacy and ability to reach vast audiences is staggering.  Even if legal rules could be quickly issued, new technology innovations would make them obsolete just as quickly.
The pressing issue isn’t what can an employee or employer legitimately say and what can be done to compensate the victims of cyber-bullying.  There’s no easy way to repair a damaged reputation or career or replace a life ended by the pain of intense, unrelenting and widespread cyber-bullying. And the ever-growing presence of inflammatory and derogatory messages posted by “trolls” is almost as disturbing.
Similarly, those posting in a moment of exuberance, anger, intoxication or thoughtlessness can write or send images that will haunt them and harm others, it seems, forever. What’s written online, unlike what’s said in a phone call or face to face, can become permanent and literally published to anyone, everywhere and last indefinitely. What you do and say in high school or college or even on your own time won’t be judged the same way if you do the same thing as an adult and publicize it online. This is a distinction that most of us have not yet fully grasped when it comes to social networking.
What’s needed are workplace and social norms for electronic communications based on civility and common sense. When email exploded in the 1990s, there were some basic conventions like 1) don’t use all caps because it reads like you’re screaming and 2) don’t sent reply all unless you want everyone included on a list to read what you wrote. The rules of email engagement have continued to evolve as BlackBerrys, iPhones and other mobile devices have made it even easier to hit reply – often without considering the ramifications.
There’s a clear business need for employers to develop online communication and social networking guidelines for civil behavior in the workplace. Whatever the law ultimately dictates, it’s clear that uncivil online behavior can harm teamwork, reputation, engagement, productivity, trust and quality.
Except in cases of threats of harassment, we don’t necessarily need new penalties or hard and fast policies.  Employers can use their own communication systems and face-to-face discussions to simply get employees to think about how to “act” online, at least as such behavior relates to their colleagues, coworkers and their employers.
So here are some common-sense guidelines for cyber-communications etiquette. As such, they’re a natural extension to the virtual world — what we at ELI® call principles of Civil Treatment® which should also be in place.
With any kind of cyber-communication, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you ready for what you wrote to be read by people other than the intended recipients?
  2. Are you willing for what you write or say to last more or less forever?
  3. Would you be willing to share what you are writing or publishing with the person about whom it’s directed?
  4. Is the answer to questions 1 through 3 “no” or “not sure”? If so, keep the comment to yourself or express it face to face.
  5. If someone wrote or published the same thing about you, would you be pleased to read it?
  6. Would you feel comfortable seeing your comment in a newspaper, on TV or on YouTube? These days we are all broadcasters with a touch of the ‘send’ key.

Just as we open doors for those who need help, say thank you and speak quietly in places of worship in the real world, we must also mind our manners in the virtual world. These simple principles will prevent personal, occupational and reputational harm and benefit all of us–without the need for legal regulations.
Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., which provides award-winning learning solutions that transform complex laws and ethical codes of conduct into simple behavioral rules that improve performance, reduce legal risk, and create productive workplace cultures.Mr. Paskoff is the former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Compliance Law Training and Communication Subcommittee. He can be contacted at

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