Social media policies are proving to be a minefield for companies and individuals learning to navigate the shoals of what is permissible, desirable or merely awkward. Digital channels multiply the opportunities for potential cIashes between what we think we are doing or saying as private individuals, and the reasonable interests of our employers or other institutions. This problem is often expressed as an unavoidable clash between who we are as employees and who we are as private individuals.
Framing the question this way seems far too simple to me. The issue is not whether it is possible to separate the work persona from a personal persona, but rather how to manage the multitude of personas we inhabit. Every day we switch between dozens of roles: employee, manager, father, husband, Battlestar Galactica fan, college friend, dog owner… We are accustomed to dealing with these different contexts, switching between them and modifying how we behave and what we say.
I behave differently with a difficult vendor challenging an MQ position than with a vendor where I have a long relationship working on strategy (I’m not easier on the latter, but it is undeniably different). I would act differently towards a youth athletic team I coach than with friends from college. I try (not always successfully) to hold back on sarcastic, ironic comments unless I know the people really well. I know that I am not alone. Everyone makes these kinds of shifts every day. If we don’t, we can’t do our jobs or even live our lives effectively.
Social media increases the chances where this can go wrong, but it is important to remember that this not something completely new; we need to learn to apply what we already do IRL to these virtual channels.
A bit of perspective and common sense will also help. I find some of these stories where it has gone wrong deeply depressing. Why would someone drinking a glass of wine while on holiday be fired? Would a company fire someone for griping around the water cooler? If not, why is a discussion on Facebook that much different? In fact, that often makes a good test as to whether something is worth pursuing: If the equivalent behaviour happened in real life, without digital media involved, would there be a problem? That can be one way of inserting common sense into some needlessly tense situations.