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Is Social Media a Hostile Work Environment?

The blurring of professional and personal lives in social media and the rush of organizations to “join in” may create just that

The blurring of professional and personal lives in social media and the rush of organizations to “join in” may create just that.

Almost every modern organization has behavioral policies known as “zero-tolerance” these days. These policies are designed to provide a healthy, productive environment in which anyone can work without fear of being insulted, offended, harassed, or otherwise made uncomfortable on a day to day basis.

Basically, “zero-tolerance” policies are - in part - the codification of the common-sense rule that says you don’t talk about religion, politics, or sex in the work environment. Controversial topics, jokes, images, and words are off-limits even at the water-cooler for anyone who truly endeavors to have a successful professional career and, in many cases, enjoy continued employment.

But when that water cooler goes digital, organizational policies and apparently common sense (and courtesy) end up routed into what amounts to a black-hole, leaving those with a role that includes interfacing with customers and the public via social media working amidst what could be considered a hostile work environment.


threemonkeysThe line between personal and professional life are not being slowly blurred out. It is being purposefully broken and snapped into pieces by social media. At the same time “brands” are encouraged – nay, frightened – into participating lest they be seen as uncommunicative and “out of touch” with their customers and modern marketing efforts. The clash between organizational policies and the use of social media as a tool to communicate with customers is painfully obvious when interacting on sites like Twitter and Facebook, where “friends” and “followers” are  really customers, interested parties, influencers, analysts, and the press; many of whom view their persona as a combination of personal and professional, and let the two intermingle freely in their tweets and posts and profiles.

What someone might say in a tweet would never be spoken aloud inside the walls of an organization to another employee. The language and views expressed in many tweets and comments on Facebook pages would almost certainly violate any modern zero-tolerance policy. Yet on Web 2.0 and social media sites across the Internet, such commentary is common.

Many of us participate in social media efforts of our own volition. It is not mandated by the organization nor is it listed as a responsibility of our caution-this-is-spartaroles within the company. But some organizations are moving to including participation in social media as a part of an individual’s job responsibility, opening up some very interesting possibilities.

For example, Pizza Hut’s search for a Twitter intern was widely broadcast through the social media world as a sign that social media as a role within the organization is growing. That’s great for those self-styled social-media “experts” and for those who believe that social media has a larger, more important role to play within a company, as this move validates their views on the role of social media.

But when you’re suddenly required to interact with hundreds and thousands of people in an environment like Twitter; in an environment  where anything goes and there are no corporate policies regarding what’s considered appropriate and what is not; in an environment where personal and professional are equally mixed, you may find yourself in the middle of what could reasonable be considered a hostile environment.

The problem is you may not be able to do anything about it. If your role includes interacting with customers in a social media setting and their language or choice of topics is offensive or hostile toward you or your personal beliefs, you have nowhere to go. You can’t unfollow them because it’s your job to interact with them. There’s no universal zero-tolerance policy in social media because it’s not just professional folks engaging in its use, and there is not – and should not be – any such policy governing the expression of opinion outside the workplace.


There is a very real danger in making the use of social media an “official” part of a person’s role within the organization without guidelines and expectations. When one chooses to interact via social media they bear the responsibility. They can follow and unfollow at will, and they can always decide it’s too hostile for them and choose not to interact. I know I have, many times, and will likely continue to do so. It’s my choice. But when it’s made part of their job responsibility, can they? If your job responsibility requires you to interact with people who may be creating a hostile work environment, organizations may be setting themselves up for some ugly legal consequences (IANAL). One of the definitions of a “hostile work environment” is that the victim must believe that enduring the hostility is a requirement for keeping their employment, which means making interacting with social media a part of an employee’s role – such as Pizza Hut’s Twitter intern position - could, potentially, lead to legal issues.

In that respect, perhaps Jennifer Leggio’s recent un-call for a CSMO (Chief Social Media Officer) is a better idea than it first seems. With oversight within the organization, corporate governance over employee’s actions as well as remediation steps might be more clearly identified. For example, if my responsibility is to monitor and respond on behalf of the “brand” on Twitter, am I allowed to “unfollow” customers who are offensive? Who use rude and vulgar language? Who are hostile? Am I required to subject myself to insulting and offensive conversations in order to perform my job? How am I allowed to respond if I choose to do so? Can I choose to respond? And what are my responsibilities? What kind of conversation should I, as a corporate representative, be engaging in?

Outside the organization, the answers to these questions are not so clear and it is just those answers we need before we start officially making social media a part of someone’s job description. Expectations when dealing with a hostile environment should be set clearly up front; what is and is not allowed on the part of the employee when responding (or even if they should respond), for example, should be decided before the situation arises. The possibility of hostility should be clearly discussed with employees before sending them “to the front lines” to ensure their personality is one that can/is willing to deal with such scenarios based on organizational decisions guiding interaction.

These kinds of policies have long existed at organizations that run a call-center/technical support for consumers. These types of interactions are nothing new to consumer-oriented tech support folks, as they’ve been dealing with them via e-mail and by telephone for years. But for many organizations the need for such a policy, training, or at least guidance may be new and a surprise. It needs to be a part of the process when moving forward with a full-blown social media presence.

It would be so much easier if people just used common sense and exercised some basic courtesy toward their fellow social media inmates, wouldn’t it?

[pause for laughter]

Exactly. That’s why organizations should start thinking about how an individual can and should interact within the Web 2.0 world and social media before they make it an “official” part of someone’s role.


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Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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