Article: Sacrificing confidentiality at the altar of social media

Strategic HR

Sacrificing confidentiality at the altar of social media

Companies need to ensure that employees maintain confidentiality while socializing in the digital space
Sacrificing confidentiality at the altar of social media

What happens when an employee’s communication lets out a trade secret? What if, in a weak moment, an employee drops a comment that could defame a colleague, a policy, or the organization as a whole?


In the beginning, there was the water-cooler! That clunky, bubble-headed machine. Now quite obsolete. Its primary functions – socializing and disbursing of information – having been taken over by a sleek hand-held device that sits beside almost everyone these days!

Social media rocks! If you don’t belong to one, you are a corporate persona non grata. If you are not on the other, you are socially non-existent. And, hey! Only dumb birds don’t tweet!

Organizations have debated to the point of fatigue about whether or not social media access should be permitted at the workplace.

Truth is there is no sure-shot or permanent way to prevent employees accessing social media sites during office hours. Live with it! Then there’s the philosopher: Today, people are ‘at work’ 24x7, thanks to email access on a smartphone. This one innovation has turned the concept of work-life balance equation on its head – well almost! Now, no one can truly ‘switch off’ from the office to indulge in a leisure activity. If that device beeps ‘you’ve got mail’, the natural tendency is to pick up the crying baby and feed it with a response – putting everything: Hobby, friends, family on hold!

If the organization operates in a multi-national environment, in multiple time zones – it gets even worse! Therefore, if an employee is effectively working 24x7, even on holidays, then should they be grudged the occasional few minutes of socialising every now and then, between 9am and 6pm, Monday through Friday?

Nah! With this perspective, the legacy reasons of ‘discipline’, misuse of company assets for personal activities, waste of time, and the like, seem hollow and archaic. Let’s be reasonable, preventing employees access to social media sites just will not work! It’ll only make a large population of the staff very unhappy.

I can say what I want, when I want, and people will listen! A heady sort of power. But with great power comes great responsibility – hopefully! It is no different in the workplace. Our employees form part of the educated, participative, communicative masses, who believe in their power of speech and expression. They hold it close to their bosom and refuse to let it go.

But what happens when the power of communication contradicts the values, policies or even the ethos of the organization? What if the communication – word or image – lets out a trade secret? What if, in a weak moment, an employee drops a comment that could defame a colleague, a policy, or the organization as a whole?

It’s a super-highway out there! Gone are the days when a photograph took two days to process, and prints had to be sent by, what we now disdainfully call, snail mail! It takes all of two minutes to click, edit and ‘share’ a photograph on a social media site. Even less time for the comment or image to be seen, ‘liked’ and further commented on by millions of people worldwide! Very embarrassing, possibly very expensive, and a PR nightmare.

Social media today looms up as a real life, real time, larger than life threat to confidentiality.

It is challenging – and downright sticky – to lay down any kind of straight-line rules around social media communication. Given that it is surrounded by vicissitudes of social, ethical, moral and personal freedoms of speech and expression.

Having said that, organizations can allow employees their freedom of communication and still stay protected. Like everything else, it has to start with the paperwork!

A well-word confidentiality policy

Organizations insert confidentiality clauses in every agreement – starting from an employee’s appointment letter. Often these are legacy clauses, word-smithed to sound unique. Now may be the time to create specific electronic media confidentiality policies that cover social media interaction and communications. A well-worded policy allows organizations to punish transgressions, with the ability to forgive benevolently, if the situation is not serious and is quickly contained. The biggest benefit of a well-worded, updated policy is to protect the organization in the court of law – if an employee decides to rebut actions taken by the organization’s leaders.

Definitions of what is considered confidential

While it is impossible to define everything that is confidential, there are enough places to start from: Dropping names of incubating products; mentioning internal projects by name – internal projects often have code-names; use of internal jargon and acronyms; company financials not in the public domain; company data, statistics, not in the public domain; employee movements, whether promotions, relocations or laterals; posting photographs taken inside the office! Specially if the corporate security team has strict rules about carrying cameras into the office; ‘Like’, ‘Share’, post or forward comments that violate or mock the law of the land

Fundamentally, employees should consider confidential, among others, anything that:

They wouldn’t tell a competitor; Demeans a customer or client – or their employees; Negatively impacts the respect and dignity of a fellow worker – irrespective of level; Negatively impacts the privacy of a fellow worker; Could place self and/or fellow workers at risk – legal or personal; Could appear to be an allegation against a supervisor or fellow worker

Employees should always be made to believe that no matter how personal their beliefs, they always represent the organization. Simply because it won’t take long to identify the organization a person works for – by using social networking sites themselves!

Periodic ‘Be Aware’ Communication

Employees focus their energies and mental bandwidth on their work. Sometimes, because of the stress and pressure they feel the need to vent their angst against their work, their boss, or the organisation. While many times, this is done over a coffee, the threat of this being done online is very real.

Hence, it becomes necessary to periodically advise employees to keep communications pertaining to the feelings and frustrations of their personal lives, well…personal. Business leaders should use employee communication platforms, like town halls, kick-off meetings, etc. to further educate employees. Messages from these pulpits of power reassure employees that everyone from the CEO down (a) recognises the value and importance of social media and (b) is committed to maintaining confidentiality.

The idea is not to gag employees, but to get them to think before they post. Through the creation and communication of a crisp social/electronic media policy, organizations can set clear expectations of their employees.

Employees often find themselves restricted to just one channel of communication – their boss. When that channel is shut off, either due to a disagreement or when the boss refuses to accept the employee’s point of view, frustration builds up. In reality, the employee only wants to express their side of the story – be heard.

Organizations can plan for failures either as a specific course of action or as a part of a larger business continuity plan. Depending on how serious the breach of confidentiality is – how important/defamatory the leaked information is to the organization – a pre-determined action plan should be in place. And, like any business contingency plan, it should swing into play immediately:

  1. First, ensure that the business and the organization’s interests are protected, or salvaged as best as possible. This quickly reduces the exposure of heightened public opinion. Some social media sites allow for deletion of messages by the author.
  2. Second, or parallel to the first action, inform the erring employee of the consequences of her/his action on the organisation’s brand, product and reputation.
  3. Third, inform the employee population of the transgression and its potential costs and consequences on the organization. And the action steps being taken by business leaders to protect the organization. Sometimes organizations put in specific instructions for employees. For example, this is about the reputation of our company. Do not speak to the press – or a voice on the phone. Direct all press or public questions to a designated person on the PR team. Employees will quickly understand the gravity of the situation and gag themselves.
  4. Finally, action against the erring employee – the employee’s identity may be kept confidential, but the punishment – or indeed the forgiveness – so meted out, should be clearly defined for all to know that the organization is serious about confidentiality in the social media space. Any employee action, and its extent thereof, should be the result of a proper, but sensitively carried out, probe where the employee is given an opportunity to explain their actions.

Social media is the platform of the present and the future. This powerful medium can, and is, being used to great advantage and success while keeping employees satisfied, engaged and safe. All it takes is a little effort, some understanding, and an ounce of prevention!

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Topics: Strategic HR, #Social Media

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