Social Media's Seven Deadly Sins

Social media is no longer cool (or “kewl”). It is now mainstream. Like every other technology advance, it carries risks and rewards. We are talking about sending a postcard to the world. To maximize the rewards and minimize the risks of social media, consider the following seven deadly sins for managers and executives.

1. Compromising Confidentiality

The top can be a lonely place, whether of a department, division, or company. Sometimes it feels as though you have no one with whom you can really talk.

So some leaders express themselves not in therapy, with their spouse or partner, or over a drink with a close friend, but on their social media pages. No problem, they think, because their postings exist solely on a private page and only friends they trust can see them. But in the world of social media, private really doesn’t mean private. The people you’ve friended can always quote or paraphrase your thoughts to others—people you never intended to get their hands on that information.

So your posts about your co-workers’ tiresome complaints, your worries you won’t meet Wall Street expectations, or your concerns that your company’s products have defects can turn into public knowledge just as quickly as you hit the Tweet button. Your career can end just that quickly.

Think twice before posting or tweeting anything that’s confidential or that employees, investors, or customers could interpret in a negative way. If litigation results, your need to share may carry with it a large price tag.

2. Indiscriminate Friending

Friending a co-worker on Facebook can turn dangerous. If you find out via Facebook that an employee who reports to you is taking a new medication for bipolar disorder, for example, he may claim that any adverse action you have taken against him because of poor performance—completely unrelated to his medical condition—stems from your knowledge of his condition. You are better off not knowing about it, period.

Second, you may be telling your subordinates too much about yourself. If workplace problems develop down the road, someone might try to use the information against you. Third, employees could cite your friending patterns as proof you have favorites or exercise bias. “Why do you friend only your white male subordinates?” asks the plaintiff’s lawyer.

What if you already have friended people who work for you, directly or indirectly? Should you go back now and say, “You are no longer my friend. In fact, I loathe you”? Of course not. But consider an e-mail in which you bcc all of your workplace “friends” and explain you have decided not to friend people with whom you work, so you are going to unfriend everyone in the workplace. Nothing personal.

These rules don’t necessarily apply to professional social networking sites, such as LinkedIn. There, the risks of connecting with subordinates are lower.

3. Giving Dangerous References

We all know how hard it is to get a real reference, one that reflects insight into how well an employee performed. Instead, we get the same nothingness that we give: “neutral references,” which consist of nothing more than the employee’s name, job title, and dates of employment.

So sometimes managers try to get around neutral reference rules by responding to requests for personal references via LinkedIn or Internet chat rooms. But going this route may violate your company’s policy. Then why not just give a personal reference, making it clear it’s unrelated to your employer’s opinions? Well, in that case you may be buying yourself personal liability.

If you don’t like your company’s neutral reference rule, try to change it. But don’t do an end run around your policy by using social media instead. The courtroom you may end up in will be anything but social.

4. Impugning Disgruntled Employees

Let’s say you discover a worker has written negative comments about the company on her own social media page or in an Internet forum. I myself have seen postings along the following lines:

• “I work for a bunch of morons.”

• “We are paid slave wages while the executives get richer and richer.”

• “Our products do not comply with …”

Your initial reaction may be to hand the employee her walking papers, but you should know that some disparaging remarks are protected by law. For example, the National Labor Relations Board tends to defend the use of social media for complaints about wages, hours, and other terms of employment.

Other nondiscrimination laws as well as whistle-blower laws may protect the employee if she alleges unlawful practices. California has a particularly strong statute that may protect off-duty postings regardless of how unsettling you find them.

So before you take any adverse action against an employee for posting what you consider to be a disloyal or disparaging message, ask your legal counsel whether it’s protected. Keep in mind that the angry employee who feels free to share her discontent with the world might also have no qualms about initiating litigation.

Terminating the employee might not solve the problem anyway. It just increases her anger—and the time she has to share it with the world.

One note of caution: The National Labor Relations Act protects only employees. Supervisors, managers, and executives generally are not employees as defined by the NLRA. So what protects your subordinates might not protect you.

5. Marketing Without Disclosing

In this extraordinarily difficult economy, you cannot leave marketing to the marketing department alone. All of us should help publicize our organization’s brand, products, and services.

Leaders take pride in the products they produce. So sometimes they discuss their company’s products or services on their Facebook page, in an online forum, or in a tweet. I remember the first time I tweeted. My younger clients told me it was very “fly” (cool). My older clients thought I had turned into a twit.

In any event, if your message is promotional, you need to disclose your employment status. If not, you will violate FTC guidelines that address social media and endorsements. Your failure to state your connection to the employer may be considered a material omission that could mislead the public.

Stating your employment status when you engage in promotional posting is not only a legal mandate but also good business: “I am proud to work for XYZ Company because I believe in the products we sell.” Potential customers and business partners will appreciate the transparency.

6. Accidentally Associating Your Employer

While you want to mention your employment status when engaging in promotional activity, you should also make clear you’re speaking for yourself and not your employer when you blog, post, or tweet about political opinions and other issues of public interest. If you post a comment about a politician on your social media page, indicate that it’s your view and not that of your employer. Do the same when you participate in online forums.

But please don’t list your employer’s name when you say, “This is not on behalf of my employer.” Otherwise, you have made the connection you are trying to avoid. In other words, don’t call a candidate a “moron” and note that this is “my view only and not the view of XYZ Company.” When people search for XYZ Company, your posting may come up.

7. Joking Around About Protected Groups

You all know that discrimination on account of gender, race, religion, or membership in any other protected group is not only unlawful but also bad business. It undermines and turns away talent.

A manager who posts his favorite ethnic jokes may find that he gets no laughs and he’s no longer a manager.

So think before you post. And that includes making negative comments about competitors. There are cyber cops out there engaged to search the Internet looking for references to their clients, by name or circumstance. These parties can use the negative comments as evidence in defamation claims.

Finally, don’t show the world what you look like only partially clothed. Wait until you’re elected to public office, and then bare some or all.

Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to specific factual situations.

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