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Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Changing Nature of "Off-Hours Conduct" Policies

Most companies of any size (and any sense) have a policy against egregious off-hours and off-property employee conduct. Thomas Nelson is no exception. Unlike policies on specific workplace behaviors, these policies are intentionally vague and are intended to address a wide variety of non-work behaviors that reflect negatively on the employer's reputation. Such policies are rarely used today, but when used their very nature has changed significantly.

Like so many traditional corporate workplace rules, the history of off-hours conduct policies goes back to the U.S. military. Aside from violations of military rules of conduct, for its officers the military used a catch-all rule against "Conduct Unbecoming and Officer" to address off-base conduct that besmirched the integrity of the military in general and its leadership (officers) in particular. Chief among these violations were public moral failings (drunkenness, carousing, etc...) especially while in uniform.

In the corporate setting these rules often translated into the company's judgement on an employee's personal life. In small "company town" communities they were most often applied to employee personal moral conduct, disciplining or terminating employees with the rationale of, "We don't want someone like that in our company." In my own experience it was mostly applied by my bosses toward unmarried women with multiple partners, gay men and lesbians.

While the same vague policy language still exists today its being applied in an entirely different context. Definitions of what is immoral have changed to the point that personal morality is almost never addressed under these policies. At the same time employees' on-line presence brought about by social media (especially Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter) connects the employee and their personal expression with their employer's brand and reputation in a very public way.

In completing profiles on social media sites one common step is to tell where you work. That's a step that occurs in the early stage of joining the site, and is soon forgotten. After that its easy to miss the fact that what you say in public can in some instances reflect badly on your employer. Another complication is the use of personal accounts on social media sites to promote your employer or its products during work hours, and then the use of the same site for personal expression after hours. Now you've joined your personal brand to the employer's brand and here's where the line between personal and professional expression becomes blurred.

As if this wasn't already a recipe for a fun day in an HR conference room with your boss, as the TV commercials say, "Wait, there's more!"

Whose reading what you write? More people than you think. On top of the people whom you know "follow" you are a group of lurkers who sign on to the sight and look up company employees, especially managers, but who never register or officially follow you. This happened to me recently when what I considered to be a personal tweet (I'm not on any company aggregator for Twitter like I am for this blog) came back to my office in the form of an offended employee. One controversial opinion of mine about public option healthcare received comments from Nelson staff and management, both on Twitter and in person, none of whom follow me.

You can make your Facebook private but then you can't effectively use it to promote the company, its brand or its products. You can block people whom you don't want following you on Twitter, but that doesn't address the lurkers who can easily outnumber your followers. If you have a public Facebook account and use Twitter you can accurately assume that nothing you write is private.

I'm not sure of the solution. It seems to me that you either must edit yourself for all on-line content incongruent with the company's brand and reputation, or you should establish separate personal and professional accounts. Otherwise anyone with a social media presence identified with their employer runs the risk of violating off-hours conduct rules. The more wholesome your employer's brand (Hello? Bible company!) the greater the risk.

Its a sticky situation and the new rules of the road are being written almost daily. Today I received a flier for a conference in Chicago on "Social Media and HR" so at least I know we're not the only people facing these new challenges.

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