Culture war topics, the spread of misinformation, and the war in Ukraine have further complicated firms’ social media presence and their efforts to craft policies guiding what employees should and should not say online.
Firms should reassess policies guiding employees’ social media posts on accounts linked to the company and weigh up whether they are going too far monitoring employees’ opinions online. Intrusive monitoring risks breaking privacy laws as well as being unethical, compliance and ethics experts said.
“Companies can’t effectively manage social media risk. They can’t do that anymore and it’s hard to let go of the idea that they can. Companies have lost control of culture and what employees are saying and doing,” said Alison Taylor, an executive director at Ethical Systems in New York and an adjunct professor at NYU Stern School of Business.
Social media policies are no longer solely a question of controlling employee speech, although that remains a big part of it. Firms attempt to control their image online, with some resorting to unethical tactics including paying employees to post positive content about the firm using their personal accounts.
“Lots of U.S. companies trying to reward staff for supportive posts and otherwise manipulate what they say online. They are also reduced to begging them not to leak. Control is not a smart approach,” Taylor said.
Culture wars in the c-suite
Firms now must address what happens when social media brings culture wars issues — for example, anti-vaccine, women’s health, LGBTQ+ rights — into the workplace.
Taylor, who is researching companies’ approach to social media, says the culture war side of social media is a big problem in the United States. Companies there are under endless pressure to take positions on social issues. It is becoming a human resources problem, which has prompted some companies to boost monitoring.
“What I’m hearing is a lot of employee complaints: ‘I saw him wearing a MAGA t-shirt on Facebook and I don’t want to work with him anymore’,” Taylor said.
Taylor pointed to the case of Levi’s Jeans’ brand president, Jennifer Sey, who quit the company in February, as an example of what happens when social media, culture wars and misinformation collide in the c-suite. Sey said she quit when Levi’s chief executive asked her to curtail tweeting about COVID-19 related school closures, mask mandates and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president.
Levi’s told the New York Times it disputed Sey’s claims she was punished “because her views veered from ‘left-leaning orthodoxy'”. Levi’s social media policy says employees are free to discuss their views but that it expects employees to protect the company’s “reputation and image”.
The war in Ukraine has opened a front on social media with both Russia and Ukraine attempting to influence hearts and minds online. Last month, the White House briefed TikTok stars about the war to influence online content. The Russian government is paying TikTokers to produce pro-Kremlin content. The Ukrainians, too, have a social media strategy linked to the war effort.
Firms should consider issuing additional guidance about posting on emotionally divisive issues and sharing posts that could be misinformation. Firms should be aware social media is monitored by government entities, which could invite future problems, a London- based risk consultant said.
It is particularly an issue for employees active on LinkedIn where their views appear alongside their employer’s name.
“LinkedIn has changed massively over the last two years in terms of what people are sharing. I generally take the view that if you’re posting something on LinkedIn, you’re representing your organisation to a much larger degree than you would do on Facebook or Twitter. There’s a distinction between your softer social media, your Facebook shares, Twitter, your Instagram,” said Frank Brown, a senior director and head of regulatory consulting at Hogan Lovells in London.
Employees should pause before posting or reposting content as a rule, but that pause becomes critical when misinformation and propaganda is in abundance.
“There’s an awful lot of false information out there. I think Ukraine situation, as with any conflict has brought some allegations of some horrible things that the Russians are supposed to be doing. It may be true but equally it is commonplace to see misinformation,” Brown said.
Policy and presence
Firms approach to social media has evolved over the past 15 years. The starting point was blocking platforms on work devices because firms thought employees were wasting too much time chatting online. That view pivoted once firms realised employees’ social media could deliberately or accidentally unleash damaging information. Some firms then introduced draconian rules seeking to restrict what employees posted.
Firms need to articulate social media policies more clearly and add context, Brown said. There are rules addressing offering products to customers on social media and market abuse. Most of the time, however, rules simply remind employees not to bring the firm into disrepute and to be careful about what they say about the company.
Firms’ use of social media to manage their brand and market products using employee accounts has muddied the water somewhat. Firms create their own content and encourage employees to share it — sometimes paying them to do so. That makes it harder for firms to justify banning employees from social media and raises ethical difficulties about using employee accounts to promote official content.
The Russian government takes a similar approach to brand management and messaging. The Times reported this week that the Kremlin will appoint “Soviet-style ‘political commissars’ in government departments and state companies to send staff ‘signals’ about the Kremlin’s political line and report back on their ’emotional climate and mood’.”
Some firms now offer non-financial incentives to employees who post positive reviews on employment websites such as Glassdoor to balance out their ratings. Compliance and ethics advisors point out that tactic puts employees in a precarious situation where they may feel unable to decline such requests.
Monitoring employees’ social media accounts has become commonplace at firms. The practice is viewed as part of people risk management and has grown in response to Roaring Kitty incident at MassMutual last year where an employee posted 10 days’ worth of investment-related content on YouTube which helped drive the meme stock craze.
Some firms monitoring has become intrusive, however, consultants said. Firms, especially in jurisdictions with fitness and probity regimes, have taken an extreme view on monitoring and evaluating an individual’s entire public presence. Firms will assess whether employees and senior managers hold views that may be perceived as inappropriate and will take into consideration what they post in evaluations, consultants said.
Firms should not assume an employee is representing its views on most social media platforms, unless that person is the chief executive or another senior official, Brown said.
“People should have a social life, should have a personal life and should be able to articulate personal views up to a degree. Obviously where that degree is subject to interpretation, and it differs from person to person. Do we perhaps self-censor a little bit more than we used to because of what’s happening? I think that’s probably true,” Brown said.
This article was originally produced by Thomson Reuters on 28 April 2022
You can join Rachel Wolcott along with other industry professionals in a Chatham house rule discussion of these issues on 23 June.