Watch Your Mouth

Saturday, October 1, 2011 - 08:12

Loose lips sink careers. Charlotte Harper ponders the etiquette of new media in the workplace.

You have just woken up after finishing your shift late the night before. Your smartphone's message alert chimes. You have a new SMS. Almost immediately, another alert tone signals the arrival of a direct message on Twitter.

Beep! A third sound indicates a friend has contacted you on Facebook.

As you walk towards the phone, it starts to ring. "Are you OK?" a colleague from interstate asks. "I saw the email from the CEO and had to call you right away."

As you talk to her on speakerphone, you scroll through the messages. The SMS, from a fellow worker who was on the early shift, reads: "Check your work email. CEO addressing staff now. Cuts."

In the tweet, a journalist mate who covers your business sector writes: "What's going on? Rumour is massive redundancies."

And the Facebook message from a friend overseas: "Oh my God, read about the outsourcing just now. Is your job safe?"

This scenario is not real, but it could be, and it provides a valuable lesson in how not to handle communications with staff. Mt asked solicitor Patricia Ryan, practice manager at EI Legal, with qualifications in industrial relations and human resources, about avoiding a gossip or social media backlash in circumstances like these.

Ryan said it was important to properly communicate and consult with staff. "A company must be open and transparent about the need for redundancies and when and how this will assist everyone," she said.

An Australian Institute of Management survey on employee engagement confirmed this. Among the questions asked was: "When it comes to being informed about changes in your organisation, who would you prefer to receive this information from?"

A third of respondents indicated they'd want to hear about such changes from their immediate supervisor or manager, while 21 per cent wanted it to come from their CEO, 15 per cent from their general manager, 14 per cent from their department or business unit manager and 11 per cent from a member of the senior executive team. The rest said they would prefer to hear it from the business owner (3 per cent), other (2 per cent) or the board (1 per cent).

There was no category for social media or through colleagues.

Ryan agreed emerging digital platforms had added to the risks for employers of workplace gossip, and company policies needed to reflect this.

"Social media has certainly provided a very quick and wide forum for employees to gossip about their employer or workplace," she said.

"Employers have good reason to be concerned that negative comments may be made about the business to a large audience."

Bullying, harassment and company confidentiality are other potential minefields when it comes to on and offline talk. The fact 10 million Australians now communicate regularly via Facebook has changed the Chinese whispers game.

When it comes to workplace policies, the uptake of smartphones and tablets presents a problem - anyone can tap in, anytime. Still, employers can ban using Facebook on work equipment or during business hours.

"They cannot prevent employee use outside these times, but they can implement policies or a code of conduct about the company's expectations of employees in using social media to harm the reputation of the company or to bully or harass fellow employees, customers or others," Ryan said.

Employers needed to provide staff with clear guidance on the company's expectations, she said.

Gossip watch

  • Implement policies specific to gossip and social media
  • Advise employees conduct out of work can be acted on
  • Ensure employees know consequences of postings about the employer
  • Include provisions in contracts not to disparage the employer
  • Note employees cannot violate other company policies on social media sites such as sexually harassing a co-worker