Cindy Krischer Goodman

In the social media age, private actions are company business

The nation may be debating the NFL’s handling of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice’s domestic troubles, but the message the incident has sent is clear — messing up in your private life can get you fired.

In an era when people are working 24/7, we are being judged round the clock, too. Any behavior that embarrasses our employer and affects revenue or reputation has become a punishable — even fireable — offense, regardless of whether it takes place in a cubicle, online or in an elevator.

“It’s a new day with respect to intensity of accountability,” says Anita Cava, a business professor and director of the Business Ethics Program at University of Miami. “There are no secrets. That is the reality of our viral world, where everyone has a recording device and camera at their fingertips.”

In the last six months alone, news events show how quickly bad behavior can go viral and how organizations now react. Just this week, the Atlanta Hawks general manager was forced on leave when his racially insensitive comments were captured on audiotape and released to news media. Only a few months earlier, racist comments in private phone conversations between LA Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling and his girlfriend went viral and cost him ownership of his NBA team.

In the age of video, email, social media and texting, our private actions and comments are now our employers’ concern, too. An offensive tweet or compromising video not only puts our personal reputation at risk, it also creates risk for our organizations. These once private, now public communications have forced public apologies and triggered swift firings.

Luke Visconti, CEO and founder of DiversityInc.com, a New York-based website for business diversity issues, says employees are becoming more aware of the risks of certain behavior and the need to consider it before they act. “Bosses are saying, ‘your private life isn’t private anymore if I know about it — so act accordingly,’” he says.

By law, companies have the freedom to run their businesses the way they want — and fire people whose behavior they consider harmful. “What people do wrong doesn’t always have to be illegal to get them fired,” explains Gerry Hoeffner, president of Personnel Dynamics Consulting Group in Fort Pierce, who consults organizations on business and the human element. “Employers are saying, if it puts our organization in a bad light, we have to address that.”

In a recent example, the CEO of Centerplate, an international food and beverage company that has catering contracts with the Miami Beach Convention Center and Sun Life Stadium, was forced to resign after a video of him kicking his doberman pinscher puppy in an elevator went viral, sparking outrage online from animal lovers. Although Centerplate initially tried to distance the company from the CEO’s actions, calling it a private matter, customer pressure led to more severe action and a public declaration that the company doesn't condone or overlook animal abuse.

Although private behavior increasingly has a way of becoming public, there are restrictions on how employers can obtain information. For example, employers cannot snoop on an employee’s private behavior by entering his or her home without consent or by asking invasive questions about his private life. For example, an employer may not ask an employee about her sex life with her husband. However, a Charlotte County, Florida, teacher learned in 2011 that when a sex tape gets into the wrong hands and is sent to parents, it can lead to job termination.

Most businesses now monitor how employees are using social media, and workers are discovering that posting controversial or just plain dumb stuff online can cost them their jobs.

Visconti says employees who make their personal opinions public need to realize that companies have to maintain an atmosphere conducive to the best interest of business and the productivity of all employees. Even on a private social media account, no one — including the CEO — has the right to impose his or her opinion to the detriment of the organization, Visconti says.

Meanwhile, workplace experts say that organizations should have a standard for acceptable behavior in and out of the office and make that code of conduct clear to employees. “Not everyone is aware that their personal behavior can have business consequences. I think employers need to have that conversation around expectation of privacy and public accountability,” Cava says.

Earlier this month, pediatric dentist Misee Harris was called into a meeting at her practice in Tennessee and presented with screenshots from her Facebook page. Harris says she was told that some of her posts about racial issues in America were unprofessional. She responded by saying the posts were private and meant solely for the eyes of her friends whom she thought she could trust. Harris says she was told to choose between her style of social media communication and her job, and she quit.

Harris says she now realizes even private social media posts can become public and that going forward, she will only work for an employer who accepts that she will be outspoken on social media on events happening in Black America or “issues that give voices to the voiceless.” Harris says she is looking for a new dental practice in Los Angeles where her partners would be comfortable with her speaking out on timely racial issues.

Theresa Davis, a senior recruiter and president of the Greater Miami Society for Human Resource Management, said human resource directors are challenged by these increasingly common issues involving off-the-clock behavior. Most directors try to weigh the offense against the nature of the person’s role at the company, Davis says. “People have lives outside of work. Sometimes they make mistakes.”

Business professor Cava says she is trying to prevent some of those mistakes by teaching future employees that their personal and online behavior can have business consequences. “While there is a human right to privacy,” she emphasizes, “I think it has become clear that our every action has become subject to public scrutiny.”

Business Columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman writes on work life issues. Connect with her at www.worklife balancingact.com.

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