It wasn't all that long ago that most of our interpersonal communication was face to face, by telephone or by letter. In these circumstances, the most common disrespectful behaviour was yelling at someone, uttering a swear word or sending a disparaging note. At the same time, the results of this behaviour were typically more private versus public.
My, how the world has changed! Today, in addition to face-to-face encounters, we communicate and interact with one another through text messaging, email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, instant messaging, Instagram and the many other electronic communication mechanisms that seem to be springing up every day. These changes in communication mechanisms have revolutionized the way we live, work and play. Just think about the number of emails you receive every day? Just think about the number of people you now see walking down the street staring at their hand-held device.
From an organizational perspective, the Internet and social media have also led to issues such as privacy, theft of intellectual property, misuse of work time, loss of productivity and the threat of legal liability resulting from employee misbehaviour. Human resource professionals, on the other hand, have been scrambling in their efforts to keep up with the issues generated by these new communication mechanisms. As a result, we now have numerous policies on Internet and social-media usage and a series of punishments designed to fit the crime.
At the same time, I really believe there are many employees who don't really understand just how social media have blurred the lines between personal and professional. They don't seem to understand the impact social media now have on their individual responsibility.
There are two issues here. First, when an individual creates a profile in any social medium, they are essentially creating a personal brand. Their personal brand acts just the same as the brand of any big-box store or large, well-known corporation; it leaves an impression.
In other words, everything you do on the Internet is "marketing" your brand. Think about it: what do you perceive when someone posts a family or food-oriented picture versus a photo bragging about the latest drunken fist fight on a Friday night? What does someone think when you post an entire string of disparaging remarks against a colleague and/or your employer or immediate boss? Another issue to consider is that your misbehaviour might be photographed by someone else and then posted to the Internet unbeknownst to you.
Your online activities allow the world to get a glimpse of your personal life, and believe me, people are watching and people are making assumptions about you. And they aren't the only ones: corporate recruiters are scanning social-media pages looking for incongruent candidate behaviour. In other words, your personal postings can ruin your career!
Secondly, I find many individuals fail to recognize their personal social-media presence and behaviour also has the potential of reflecting on their employer; especially on the corporate marketing brand. For instance, look how quickly the CFL responded to football players who recently sent out inappropriate tweets regarding the sexuality of an American prospect. The CFL absolutely did not want the public to think this reckless player behaviour represented the views of the larger organization.
Recall as well, the two high school teachers who lost their jobs thanks to a YouTube video that went viral across the world. These are good examples of how the reputation and the "marketing brand" of an organization can be impacted by employee behaviour. And, employers simply cannot and will not allow themselves to be put at risk for any legal liability that could arise from the behaviour of their employees.
At the same time, the Internet and social media have also created a storm of controversy regarding what is appropriate punishment for employee misbehaviour. Perhaps five or six years ago, the punishment might not have been so severe; however, today with the explosion of the Internet, the impact of misbehaviour is far greater. Thus, we are not only seeing more stringent punishment, we are seeing very quick and very public responses to employee misbehaviour. Is society going in the right direction? In my view, yes it is.
As mentioned earlier, our new forms of communication mechanisms have revolutionized the way we live, work and play. It is also pleasing to see sports groups are paying closer attention to the need for building a culture of respect. However, I sense the challenge for volunteer sports groups might even be more difficult than in the workplace because their members and audiences are volunteers and the organization can't effectively build in controls and punishment for all parties. So, the next best approach is education. A good example of an educational approach is the recent announcement by Hockey Winnipeg to require at least one parent from every registered family to take an online course on Respect in Sport.
I know many readers are scoffing at the idea of requiring a parent to take an online course on respect. On the other hand, what are the choices? Hopefully, the course will help individuals understand their personal behaviour not only creates a personal "impression" but it impacts on the brand of the entire organization.
In today's world, everyone who has posted a personal profile on a social-media site is essentially "in the public eye." In other words, your life may no longer be private. In fact, you will become known through the public perception you've created through your social media interactions. Knowing this suggests the need for a larger sense of responsibility because every phrase, every word and every picture will be scrutinized by viewers. Therefore, people must be more diligent in planning for the what, where, when, why and how of everything that is being communicated.
The Internet and social media are wonderful tools for getting and staying connected with friends, family and colleagues. They are exactly that -- tools. The rest is up to each and every user. In other words, it is entirely your responsibility to avoid the irresponsible misuse of these tools and to ensure you always manage your brand to create a positive impression. Keep in mind the world is now on your doorstep and its people are always looking and listening.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed. is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org