Tweeting is a beautiful sound, but not in my backyard: Employer Rights and the ethical issues of a tweet free environment for business.

Don Gotterbarn


The suburbs of the United States once welcomed Canada geese for providing a daily encounter with nature and as symbols of a protected environment. As their number increased so has their destruction of the environment; soil erosion from grass removal, pathogen carried by dropping, and aggressive behavior toward humans. Accordingly, the suburban attraction for these animals has changed to a desire to be rid of them or at least to significantly thin and control their ranks and diminish their negative effects on the environment. There are even websites dedicated to achieving these ends. (GoGeese.Com, GooseBusters, etc.). One of the problems is that these animals are protected by environmental law in the United States.

Effective communication is important to any business and business has encouraged computer communications until the quantity and kind of communication began to impact productivity. In response to this difficulty many corporations developed computer use policies. These policies were primarily focused on email and Internet usage while at work. These policies range from almost draconian restrictions which prohibit any email and Internet use in the work place to policies which encourage personal use of corporate computers during official breaks.

These policies were justified in a variety of ways including claims: that employees should not attend to personal tasks during working hours, not devoting salaried time to the company is a violation of your employment agreement, the organization owns the computers and what was on them and they should not be used for personal communications. Some of these claims have been upheld by court cases and have been used to justify inspection and restriction/censorship of employee email on the corporate machines. One problem with using laws to judge these standards is that technology moves faster than the law; there is a gap between the speed of technological development and changes in the law to help manage the technology. Law always lags behind and we still try to apply old doctrines to new technologies and social changes. Inappropriate employee communication was easily controlled both by employer computer use policy and mechanical restrictions on the computers.

Previous corporate computer use policies were about the use of computers at work and were based on at least two presumptions: the financial agreement between employer and employee and that the computers in question were corporate assets.

Improvements in technology (wireless communication, miniaturization, etc) and the change in our understanding of ways we communicate, generally referred to as ‘social media’, have caused many new and significant problems employers. These changes have contributed to blurring the lines between personal and corporate computer use. Our concepts are further muddied by employees bringing their own computers, in the form of smart phones and other devices, into the work place.

Both the technology and its usage patterns in social media require careful ethical evaluation. Among the problems are: a failure to see that the nature of the medium sometimes significantly distorts the messages, it is wrong to transmit from some locations, the equation of degree of repetition with truth, the failure to understand the impact of messages beyond its video screen representation, and career impacts of widespread digital information.

The technological changes have facilitated radical changes in the acceptable use patterns of technology outside of the work place. Individuals are now almost in continuous contact through social media.

For the individual the new standard of the social media raise some ethical tensions. You are valued by the number of tweets and followers of your every tweet. The new technology has increased your audience; instead of gossip being one on one conversation you can now gossip with a bull horn. Your worth is calculated in the number of ‘friends on your page’ and the more people who listen to you or the higher the number of hits you have the greater your currency. Your importance in social media is not determined by credentials, licenses, or experience but by popularity.

Oddly this generates a tension between your ‘value’ – tweet count or number of friends versus the ‘veracity’ of what is said. Problems with the accuracy and impact of tweets are beginning to be recognized. The new media requires and is developing standards to evaluate the content versus the number of times it has been repeated. There are web sites and standards developed by journalist to help substantiate the content of tweets. The Canadian Association of Journalists has tweeting guidelines. There are recommendations for what and how to re-tweet.

Many people now use Twitter’s 140 characters messaging without thinking how shortening the message may cause the loss of significant information as when the words “is indicated” were deleted from a re-tweet about the occurrence of a second Icelandic volcano. The instantaneous exponential repetition of this tweet added to its credibility and caused a panic.

Sometimes it is inappropriate to tweet from certain locations like a war zones. During the attacks in Mumbai, Twitter was so effective in providing up to date information that there was a concern that the tweeting would reveal critical information to the terrorists.

Unlike the effects of a single Canada goose a human twit can be re-tweeted exponentially increasing its impact, be it negative or positive. A significant repetition increases the credibility of a claim. The original April Fool’s day joke about President Obama’s birth location had the date removed thus significantly changing its information content and was re-circulated. It near infinite recirculation added so much to its credibility that significant numbers of people still believe that he was not born in the USA. No hard evidence like a birth certificate has been strong enough to sway their belief in the repeated message.

Digital dirt can derail an individual’s career. Ninety percent of search firm recruiters look online to find anything that helps draw a complete picture of a job candidate . The digital information may indicate ethics violations, falsified qualifications, felony convictions and sexual harassment complaints, among other things. Due to the increased comfort with information-sharing and living openly online much of this information is posted by the job candidate. “The challenge to professionals is twofold: create a positive identity and suppress a negative one. In 2010, if there are no Internet references to your success and history of accomplishments, you don’t exist.” . It is important to develop and protect your personal image brand.

Just as there is a gap between the speed of technological development and changes in the law to help manage the technology, employers are also in catch up mode with technology. Corporations, like the law lag behind technology and social changes.

Corporation’s computer use policies are inadequate and inappropriate for social media. The basis for managing working time now has to include reference to usage of personal computing devices in the work place, corporate brand and image protection, but this must be done without introducing any new ethical problems.

Some problems arise in part because when individuals use social media there is a blurring of the distinction between public information and private information and between work information and personal information. Notes on LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook are a blend of private and public information. The major importance for individuals on Facebook is their Personal brand that must be maintained. People talk about what it is that they do but not who it is they work for. Sometimes the media will be used to attack particular employers. For instance there is a claim that Wal-Mart “bullies disabled greeters” on These attacks on employers can be intensive from multiple directions: web pages, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace accounts.

Business must be concerned with their public image, their brand. Social media is a powerful tool to promote a company, attract new customers and recruit the best talent. As digital dirt can derail a person’s career, it can destroy a company. Employers are being attacked on social media. In order to stay in business it is important for them to protect their brand from being tarnished by a pile of tweets and to keep their corporate image clean. Unfortunately if a brand is tarnished by a flock of tweets, no matter what evidence is provided it will be difficult to fix because social media has shifted trust away from institutions. It is hard to clear a company name.

Employer’s computer use policies need to address new problems generated by social media while minimizing ethical problems. They need to establish internal work related controls for social media to re-focus their employees as they attempted to refocus them with computer use policies. They need to address new issues the technology raises for industrial espionage from within the company. They also need to re-address the way in which employs represent the company and comment on the company on social media when not at work. One of the underlying problems with such policies is that when you place restrictions on the kind of things they can say you also make it difficult for them to be an asset to your brand. There is a need to balance the positive and negative effects of the policy.

Recent attempts to develop such policies have been problematic in a number of ways. Employers want to get the benefits of collaboration but users of social media don’t really draw the lines around the corporation. Corporate social policy needs to address this tension.

In 2010 a company, AMRC, fired an employee who had made untoward remarks about her manager on Facebook. AMRC had a policy which stated that “Employees are prohibited from making disparaging, discriminatory or defamatory comments when discussing the Company or the employee’s superiors, co-workers and/or competitors. “ In the USA, the National Labor Relations Board brought suit for the employee against AMRC to see if this policy violated employee right and violated free speech standards. The National Labor Relations Board was concerned with employee rights and wrongful termination.

In an attempt to address the employers rights and wrongful harm by their employees, some of these polices for social media are examined; identifying some of their ethical problems and making suggestions and providing strategies to reduce those problems.