Sharing Information on Social Media and Being Professional

My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror.
W. Somerset Maugham

Note: A more off-topic in-between posting.

I watched an interesting presentation a short while ago about “risky behaviors” social media users engage in when posting status updates (= Why people post stupid things on Facebook).

You likely have heard stories of people over-sharing information and getting fired for it. But I wonder whether this is just happens due to other reasons (e.g., a supervisor wanting to get rid of a person and using this as an “excuse”).

But even if these texts would have gotten anyone fired — I don’t think that this is justified in most cases. After all, private bitching about work is … well, uhm, … common? And it’s not only talking badly about work. There is, for example, the fear of pictures (e.g., party pictures with alcohol) leading to being fired — or never employed in the first place. But seriously? Unless you do it at work — for which you should get fired — sharing pictures or texts of what you do in your private life should have no consequences for your professional life.

I think the issue hinges on the confusion of something being “public” (= available easily and often anonymously) with something being “professionally relevant”.

Yes, you can access evidence of ‘decadent’ behavior your employees did outside of work while you yourself are at work. You can peek into the private life of the person, but that’s just it — you peek into what they did outside of work. It does not matter that you can see it while you are at work — they were not when they did it. You are crossing boundaries here.

Visiting a social media site of your (prospective) employee is similar to walking by house of the employee after work or on a weekend. If you listen for suspicious sounds or peek into the garden, don’t be surprised by what you find. And surprise — everyone has skeletons in their closets, if you snoop, you will find. Much communication is digital and relevant conversations often are emotional — including [NSFW link] very positive or [NSFW link] very negative events. Why should sharing this information online be bad — or even sanctioned or prohibited?

I think the problem is that we still have not adapted to being able to get this kind of information about people we have no intimate relations with. Who, except close buddies, sees others get wasted, and who, expect perhaps swingers/sex club visitors, sees acquaintances or colleagues naked? Extreme cases (not counting company parties or visits to the sauna), but I would argue to consider the intended audience.

Just because it was visible to everyone does not mean it was intended for you (especially not in your professional function or role).

For many people, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, private Blogs, etc., do not represent their professional selves. So the wind blew and you saw them skinny dipping. Is that evidence of bad judgment? Or you heard them talking on the bus to a good friend, venting their frustration about work or even about you. Awkward, yes, perhaps a serendipitous case of open uncensored feedback — but does that mean that they are disloyal? Or just that they are a complex human being — like you?

It’s a the garden of their house — some gardens should have thick hedges and some things should perhaps be moved into a sound-proofed room in the basement. On the other hand, the privacy settings are often confusing and frequently change, and you want to make your private self public. Otherwise, how can you find like-minded individuals? This requires broadcasting these interests and being able to be identified by your name. It does not make sense to post your love of Guinness anonymously if you look for people who hit the Irish pubs with you, even if social networking sites would allow anonymous profiles.

So, whatever happens in one’s private life should be of no relevance for the professional life. It’s public, but it’s “private-life public”.

There is still decency — people have a right not to know. And there are a lot of people who I do not want to see wasted, or hear about their last conquests (or, gasp!, see them). But I cannot help but wonder how much of this fear about social media over-sharing is based on confusing private with professional behavior. And then falsely concluding from private behavior to a lack of professionalism in work life. A misconception that people who ‘let go’ in private life do the same at work.

Perhaps that kind of “letting go” in private life is even beneficial. Would you want to have someone who is always “in control”, 24/7/365? What happens when that person snaps? Hmm, how was it in “Quills”?

“If I wasn’t such a bad woman on the [social media] page, I couldn’t be such a good woman in [my work] life.”
Madeleine in “Quills” [modifications]

After all, while we can (and should) expect (and require) professionalism at work, we shouldn’t try to tell people what they can or can’t do in private (as long as it’s legal) and what they might or might not share (as long as they give a fair warning to avoid unintended exposure, you can’t unsee, unfortunately).

In earlier times we did not have this kind of access, but people did the same kind of behavior. We suspended the belief that other people got wasted, had kinky sex (or any sex at all), or did any other kind behavior we might not agree with. Now we live in times when we could monitor people for their behavior outside of work, directly or indirectly. We can cyber-stalk, we can listen it, we can monitor off-work conversation by listening to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. We can use this to look for any instances in what we would — rightfully — consider a breach in professionalism if it happened at work. But we forget that this happens in non-professional contexts. It did not happen at work.

We are trying to judge people by a norm that does not apply to these settings.

Perhaps it’s just best to … well, chill a little and ignore the private lives of employees or acquaintances. Just because we can have access to their “public private lives” does not mean that we should use this access and cyber stalk, because in most cases, it is simply not relevant for the professional life.

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