Social & Corporate: Personal & Professional

Friday, February 29, 2008 0:19 | Filed in Blogging, Media, Technology

It’s an interesting question, and it’s one that is going to be asked more and more often in the coming years.

What happens when the boundaries between personal and professional identity start to blur?

On this site — and indeed in other locations — I tend not to mention who I work for, other than that it’s in the public sector. That’s because I try to keep my professional identity and my personal identity separate. But I’m guessing people could marry together the two halves of my identity with only a modicum of research.

And for some people, the boundaries are much closer. Some of the people I know on Facebook for example, refer to their employers either through being a member of a group that represents them, through linking to their employers’ Facebook identity or application or something else like that.

Now, depending on how their privacy settings are configured, this information might only be available to people they have specifically set up as friends. But a quick poke around reveals that by simply being in the same regional network as someone (and specifically not listed as a friend), I can find out not only who they are employed by, but that they are members of groups which I don’t imagine their employer would approve of.

They could have avoided this by use of privacy settings on most of the social networking sites (although in practice a significant proportion don’t), but obviously if they are a blogger, anything they say goes directly into the public domain.

Not that their employer is directly associated with these other groups, mind, but it’s certainly a case of the boundaries between professional and personal identities becoming blurred. This is going to increasingly happen.

It’s going to increasingly happen because more and more people are developing online identities. In some cases (ideally where the person is well known and respected in their professional field and isn’t too controversial), this could be of benefit to the employer. I also know someone who — at least to me — falls into this category.

How is this to be managed?

I’m not sure. I understand that this is something that companies may well need to do. When employees maintain a website, a Facebook or a MySpace page that makes reference to that company or organisation, whatever it is that they say and do will help people form opinions not only about the person in question, but about the sort of people and sort of attitudes that are prevalent within the organisation.

And that’s something organisations need to watch out for. If I were to be having problems with a utility company (for example) and came across one of their employees on Facebook complaining about having to deal with “whinging customers”, I think I’d be rather upset, wouldn’t you?

Most organisations can — and do — control what their employees can do in work time, but obviously what happens outside work time is a different matter. If you publish information which brings your employer into disrepute, you’re at risk of being dooced:

In 2002, Armstrong ignited a fierce debate about privacy issues when she was fired from her job as a web designer and graphic artist because she had written satirical accounts of her experiences at a dot-com startup on her weblog, dooce.comWikipedia

She didn’t challenge the termination (which as she was working for a small, US dot-com startup, might have been more difficult to challenge than if she’d been working for a utility company in the UK) but in the very post which began “I lost my job today”, she herself asked what was supposed to happen when personal and professional identities began to merge:

At what point does my personal website, regardless of what I’ve published on the site, affect my professional life? If I am not responsible for the two colliding (meaning, an anonymous person tips off my employer that I run a personal weblog), is it right that my employer should condemn me for expressing personal dissatisfaction? Would it be any different if someone found a notepad on which I had scribbled things about my job and turned it in to my boss?

(Her story has a rather happy ending however: thanks to the notoriety, she and her husband were able to make enough income from adverts on her site to give up “proper” work)

Of course, many companies and organisations may have a blogging policy. But that’s the problem with today’s technology — things are moving so quickly. Do they also have a MySpace or Facebook policy?

Certainly they can ensure — through internet/email usage policies — that you can’t maintain these sites during work time, although interestingly for those that do allow this, the legal/tech site Out-Law suggests that if you update your Facebook profile during work time, your employer could actually own your profile:

The basic law is that if you create copyright material, something you write or type into a computer, you take photographs, you do cartoons, you potentially create film, if that is created in the course of your employment then the assumption is that that belongs to your employerCatrin Turner, quoted on Out-Law

But assuming that it is created in your own time, using your own information, are you at risk for blogging?

Well you probably are at risk, particularly if your employers don’t know you’re writing, or you’re writing things about them, or that otherwise could be seen as potentially bringing them into disrepute. But the companies themselves have to be careful too: sacked bloggers have been winning employment tribunals:

The site,, was written under a pseudonym and detailed expatriate life in the French capital. Ms Sanderson said the blog rarely mentioned her work, and did not name her employers or their line of business.

Suspicions were raised after a photograph of her was posted online, and once her employers became aware of the site Ms Sanderson was summarily fired, despite having worked at the company for more than four years.

An employment tribunal in Paris yesterday disagreed with that decision, upholding a complaint of unfair dismissal and awarding Ms Sanderson damages

The Guardian

So it’s something that both employers and employees need to be aware of, and it’s something that people need to remember moves quickly — as I said earlier, many organisations may now have a blogging policy, but I’d be surprised if many of them have a social networking policy. And even if they do, what specifically can be outlawed without someone challenging it based on the “Freedom of Expression” article in the Human Rights act?

Again, I don’t know — and I’m hoping that I won’t ever be in a position where I want to test that legislation!

But it’s a question that needs to be asked, particularly as companies and organisations are increasingly looking to jump onto the social networking phenomenon, but are coming from a position where they previously have been able to control publicity through one central corporate entity, and putting something “out there” on Facebook, on a public forum, or similar risks malicious comment, ridicule and generally people taking the piss. A far cry from the traditional corporate approach.

So surely this can’t work at a corporate level?

Well, not necessarily. If a government minister can have a successful blog (sure, there’s plenty of criticism on there, but as a blogger you simply have to learn to develop a thick skin) as David Miliband has done, then surely other people can do it?

And it’s not even as though David avoids contentious issues. Indeed he actually seems to relish them, recently asking Kosovo: Is it legal? As you may imagine, there are some people who will disagree with whatever David Miliband’s personal opinion was going to be…

So there’s are really three questions:

  1. How should individuals manage their online identities? How should individuals manage the increasingly blurred divide between professional and personal identities?
  2. How should organisations manage their employees online identities? What policies and procedures can be put in place that continue to allow freedom of expression yet offer protection to both the employee and employer?
  3. How should organisations or individuals presenting a corporate face (e.g. the Miliblog, any CEO’s blog and so on) handle it? It’s all too easy to do it wrong…

Well, not being an employer, I don’t really know about the first two. But I do have one piece of advice to offer for anyone “corporate” wishing to dip their toes into the sea of social media. Be human. Anything seen as a corporate puff-piece will generally be ripped to shreds and result in a lot of hostility and negative feedback and — and this is the important part — will not be respected or trusted.

Frankly, anything coming from any corporate face is likely to come in for hostility and criticism, but this has to be taken on the chin. Don’t delete the comments (or people will just comment elsewhere telling everyone you only post positive comments); accept criticism on the chin, and keep writing in a personal style. Corporate style does not work on social media.

If you want to see how to do it well, then the Miliblog isn’t a bad place to start, but for me the absolute gem in corporate social media was the Cheltenham Council flood blog. It was clear what the purpose was, it was clearly to the benefit of the local residents and it fulfilled that purpose.

But if you’ve any thoughts on how individuals, employers or corporate ‘faces’ should handle social media and the blurring of personal and professional identities, let’s have them…

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4 Comments to Social & Corporate: Personal & Professional

  1. Shannon says:

    February 29th, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    I had this same conversation two days ago at work with my boss about facebook. Her daughter just a got a job where they told her not to put their company name in her facebook profile. My boss was asking me why this would be, and I told her how many people post pictures of themselves drunk at parties and stuff, and the company doesn’t want it advertised that those people work for them. They don’t want their name attached to their employees’ personal activities that are less than stellar, which makes sense. But I’m also curious how that’s different from someone acting this way and verbally telling people where they work. I wonder, too, where this will all lead as far as corporate control.

  2. The Goldfish says:

    February 29th, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    The issue is, of course, all about publishing. You’re not just saying this stuff, you’re publishing your words and those words are available for all to see. Some employers are extremely sensitive – I remember the thing with Petite Anglaise and it was a ridiculous reaction on the part of the employer.

    However, I do know people who have been careless – they’ve not behaved in an outrageous fashion but they have slipped up. For example, I know a teacher who had some former pupils as “friends” on facebook. He mentioned a disagreement with his previous headmaster on-line and of course this information got filtered down (complete with elaborations) to pupils of his old school. So the result looked extremely unprofessional, if you can imagine.

    It’s that kind of thing, which is a little difficult to write rules about (without being totally draconian) which causes real problems.

  3. Anonymous says:

    March 2nd, 2008 at 11:03 am

    It is a strange situation, my take on it is that my employer has a call on my life for the time that they are paying me. During that time I will work in line with whatever corporate agenda I am given. However obviously like everybody else I sometimes do not agree with the agenda, should I not be free to voice that opinion. Provided I do not show who I work for then I cannot see an issue with it. I extend this to any attempt to have a say in the outside activities of employees, my employer has a policy that states you cannot undertake in any paid work other than you work there, in my opinion what right do they have to control what I do outside of my paid hours, if they want to do this then they should pay my 24/7.

    The issue is distilled in the issue where the person in question works for the government or authority thereof. In this case not only do you work for the organisation on one level, but on another they work for you, so you may have a legitamate complaint about areas of policy which affect you as a resident/cusomter (I hate the overuse of that term) but feel completly unable to voice it due to your status as an employee.

  4. says:

    August 30th, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Blogging For Fun and Education…

    [...]When you know when doing your work you will do more than when you have no ideas…[...]…

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