As social media usage continues to rise, it’s only natural that statistic correlations will be made about the individuals who use the medium. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s common to deep-dive into demographic information and behavioral data. While there will always be exceptions to the "correlations" that emerge from such data, universal truths about social networking usage and user behavior can be valuable.
The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) is the oldest non-profit organization in the U.S. dedicated to independent research and advancement of high ethical standards and practices in both public and private institutions. Since 1994, the ERC has produced the National Business Ethics Survey (NBES), available for free to the public, to gather information about employees’ perspectives of ethics in the workplace. Dr. Patricia J. Harned, president of the ERC, says the NBES is the only longitudinal study that represents the views of the U.S. workforce in business.
The ERC’s latest report is one of the first to explore the possible connection between ethics and social media. “Social networking has become very important in our culture, and we wondered if the technology is influencing employees’ views about ethics at work," Harned explains. "Additionally, over the past few years, we have seen companies establish policies concerning social networking in the workplace, so this year it seemed fitting to add questions on the topic.”
National Business Ethics Survey results
One of the most fascinating conclusions in the report is that "active social networkers show a higher tolerance for activities that could be considered unethical." But Harned says the findings are not an indictment about the character of social networkers: “It appears that they are more willing to consider things that are ‘gray areas’ – issues that are not always clear in company policies as wrong; and that’s an area for further study.”
The report also points out that active social networkers are at higher risk for observing misconduct. Harned stresses that it's observing wrongdoing, not necessarily participating in it. “You could also look at another set of our responses – particularly the high number of active social networkers who reported misconduct – and say that social networkers behaved appropriately,” she explains.
Defining ethics and influence Factors
In order to understand any potential connection between ethics and social networks, it only makes sense to step back and discuss what ethical behavior means. Jay Shepherd, author of the book Firing at Will: A Manager’s Guide, sums up unethical behavior with a sentence.
“It’s like pornography: You know it when you see it. It’s as simple as knowing the right thing to do, then doing the wrong thing.”
Harned adds that perceptions of ethics are influenced by many things. “One influence is the values that we learn as children. But another aspect is the influence of people along the way in our lives," she says. "It could be that there is something about the conversations and the world view that comes through the connections of social networks that influences employees’ views about what is right and wrong.”
Is there a logical connection between ethics and social media?
There is some skepticism about trying to draw conclusions about ethics based upon social networking usage. Shepherd suggests the study perpetuates old-school thinking. “The idea that social networkers are more apt to be unethical is absurd. It’s just that you’re more likely to hear about it. In my experience, social media participants are likely to be more advanced in terms of relationships and thoughtfulness – not less.”
One definition in the study that drew attention was the classification of “active social networker” as one who "spends 30% or more of their work day participating on various social network sites.” Shepherd says his reaction was, “Seriously? That’s a ridiculous amount of time. Those employees aren’t even working; who cares what they think?”
Maybe it’s exactly this time-wasting factor that creates the perception toward connecting social networking and ethics. Dwane Lay, human resources director at Missouri Baptist Medical Center, also feels the connection might not be directly causal. “Social media tools are the latest in a long line of time-stealers in the workplace, following in the footsteps of March Madness brackets, afternoon golf games, morning water cooler gossip or cigarette breaks," Lay explains. "But social media like Twitter and Facebook are more visible from a distance (of both time and space), so they are easier to criticize and quantify.”
Should ethics blend into social policies?
Both ethics and social media are important in the workplace, so the question becomes: What is the best way to manage them? Should they be treated as two distinct conversations? Or should ethics be addressed in social media policies? Shepherd recommends keeping it simple. “My social media policy is just two words but covers everything: ‘Be professional.’ Unprofessional employees are going to act unethically whether or not they’re plugged in to social media.”
Kristen Fyfe, senior communications manager at training and development association ASTD, points out the component that both ethics and social media must have in common to be successful. “Clarity is the most effective element for both ethics and social media policies," Fyfe says. "Companies that have not incorporated behavior expectations into their employee handbooks should make that a top priority.”
Ensuring both ethics compliance and social media success
Whether you choose to incorporate ethics into your social media policy or handle the topics independently, there’s agreement that setting expectations, conducting training and holding people accountable is necessary. Lay shares some practical advice on how to ensure employees are in compliance with corporate ethics, but it really applies to any policy, including social media.
“First of all, read the policy. Not fun, granted, but educational," he says. "Second, remember that if you identify yourself as a member of a company or organization, you are always on stage. Act like it. How you respond online will have as much or more resonance than in person, so either be on your best behavior or don’t act as a brand advocate.”
More questions than answers
Perhaps there aren’t any definitive conclusions about ethics and social media usage. After all, social networking is still in its relative infancy in the workplace. But we’re learning that social influence exists, and its true impact is just coming to the surface. Further exploration across the social landscape is needed.
What do you think? Are social networking and ethics connected in some way? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.