6/21/2011 -

Tales from O’Seay’s Fables . . .

Sally was a good supervisor. She had a good balance between being friendly to employees, on the one hand, and being diligent in enforcing company policy, on the other. Most employees thought she was fair and reasonable. Sally had a practice of walking through the office several times a day and she noticed that one employee, Julie, frequently seemed to being looking down at something, perhaps trying to hide something. Sally soon discovered that Julie had her smart phone turned on and she was “checking her messages.” The company’s policy stated that cell phones must be turned off at work, and when Sally asked Julie about this, she responded, “I need to have my phone turned on in case there’s an emergency with my children.” Trouble was, Julie wasn’t checking on her children, she was checking her FaceBook page.

The digital revolution is moving forward at warp speed. We used to worry about unauthorized phone calls on the company line. Then it was beepers. Now, it’s smart phones and the plethora of social networking sites. A smart phone is actually a mini-computer and it connects employees to a cyber world that we may not know about and is largely out of our control.

Smart Phones May Lead to Not-Smart Behavior at Work.

Many employees feel that they must have their cell phones turned on at work so that their children (who also may have cell phones) can contact them. Leaving aside the obvious question of “What did you do a few years ago when there were no cell phones?” -- we still have other serious workplace issues like loss of productivity, medical patients who have to wait, photos or videos taken at work and posted on line or shared with co-workers, retail customers who receive poor service, improper or sexually charged emails, and “sexting." Some employers prohibit employees from bringing cell phones to work. Others have a policy prohibiting cell phones from being turned on at work. Still others allow them to be turned on but in the vibrate mode (the problem with this provision is that it is difficult to enforce and you still don’t know what the employee is accessing on line). If you allow cell phones to be used at work, some employees may abuse this privilege and use the phone for other reasons, like making appointments and ordering groceries or, the “unkindest cut of all,” looking for another job, on your time. From our seat as a management consultant, it’s best not to allow cell phones at work, if that policy is reasonable for your workplace.

Social Networking at Work.

And so, another new phrase has entered the English language – social media and social networking. A social network is a web site where you can interact with others and perhaps reconnect with old friends or others with similar interests. Some of the more popular sites are Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Twitter and others. While not an actual social networking site, YouTube can be a major source of employee problems at work. There is no cost to join and you have virtually unlimited access, so what’s the problem? Problems at work are legion and are continuing to evolve. For example, if someone writes on your “Wall,” or if some event occurs such as a friend’s birthday, Facebook can send a notification to your computer or your smart phone. Thus, Sally, in the case above, could have been checking her Facebook notifications, none of which had the slightest thing to do with work, and all of which detracted from her attention to her duties.

For another example, suppose a male supervisor of a female employee accesses her social networking page and sees pictures that are, shall we carefully say, “not work related.” The male supervisor then either writes on her wall or, in conversation with her the next day, tells her how much he likes her pictures. The employee feels threatened and “creeped out,” and tells her mother, who just happens to know a personal injury attorney, who then contacts both the company and the supervisor and . . . well, the story will not have a happy ending.

Or, suppose a disgruntled employee goes home from work one night in a state of disrepair, accesses his social networking site, and writes on his Wall, “My boss is a real jerk and this is the worst company I’ve ever worked for. They treat me like a dog and don’t pay me enough to live on.” The supervisor sees this post and promptly fires the employee for posting it. The employee then files an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the posting was “protected concerted activity” (under NLRB regulations, employees have the protected right to discuss their wages, benefits and working conditions).

Yet again, suppose an employee, on the weekend, during non-work hours, visits an auto dealership to buy a car and has a bad experience. She “tweets” to her friends, “This is an awful dealership, they treated me rudely, lied to me and tried to charge me extra fees.” Trouble is, this auto dealership is a customer of the company for whom the employee works. They hear about the tweet, get a copy of it and cancel their account.

Or, suppose two employees are horsing around at work and one of them makes an obscene gesture of a different kind of digital revolution. It’s all in good fun, except that a third employee was watching and took a video with his smart phone, which he then emailed to all of his friends, one of whom then posted it on YouTube and . . . well, the employee is embarrassed and public relations fallout for the employer could be significant. You can imagine how much worse this could be if some kind of activity took place at a company party, where one or more employees had a few too many libations, where one employee “playfully” engaged in some sort of sexual behavior, and where another employee took a video, sent it to friends, one of whom put it on YouTube . . . .

Where Do We Go From Here?

The digital universe is still expanding and we anticipate that other unexpected and undesired situations will evolve in the workplace and management must be prepared to handle them. After all, this is what managers do. However, as one manager told me, when you’re up to your elbows in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your main objective was to drain the swamp. And since there are lots of social networking alligators in the digital swamp, we strongly recommend that you have a comprehensive policy regarding social networking at work. Some of the provisions could include:

1. Prohibiting cell phones or smart phones at work or, if not prohibited, placing specific guidelines on their use.

2. Some employers have a designated phone line for family members to call in the event of an emergency.

3. Prohibit employees from using cell phones to take pictures or video at work.

4. Prohibit employees from accessing social networking sites at work, either on the cell phone or the computer.

5. Do not allow supervisors to access the social networking sites of their employees or to “friend” employees.

6. While we cannot prohibit an employee from posting any and all information, we can caution them to be prudent.

7. If the company has a Facebook or Twitter account, be sure to thoroughly train and advise the employee in charge of it with respect to the benefits, pitfalls and proper use of these media.

Please contact your Seay Management Consultant if you have any question about your social networking policy or if you have a skirmish arising from the digital revolution. And visit our web site at for management advice and guidance on other employee issues. We appreciate having you as a valued client of our firm and look forward to talking soon.

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