When i wrote my first book, ‘Exploring the World of Social Learning‘, i started it by saying how we live in a grey space: between the formal worlds of work and the social lives we inhabit outside of it. Increasingly, it’s hard to differentiate. We work at home and play at work. Everything about the technology and infrastructure that we interact with drives us deeper into this grey space, and that provides us with a unique set of challenges if we want to be socially responsible businesses, if we want to be fair as leaders.
Just because we can see everything, does it mean we should look?
Who owns these spaces? Is the act of broadcast enough justification for the act of listening? Should we ever turn a blind eye?
Consider these scenarios:
Someone in your team is late for work on Monday, but you know from Facebook that they were out drinking last night. What’s fair? Is it fair to use that knowledge, from the social connection, in the formal world of work?
Someone in your team has a popular blog on a topic related to the area your business works in (say, pharmaceuticals) and they are having a great conversation with someone about navigating ethical challenges. The person they are having a conversation with is CEO of a rival business. Who owns that conversation? Are they helping a competitor to be successful, or are they advancing a valuable conversation for your whole industry? And is it even your business?
Someone in your organisation posts scans from their 12 week antenatal checkup on their personal Twitter account: you know there’s a long project coming up that involves lots of travel. Do you talk to them about it?
We could write a hundred of these, and for each, there would be a position that’s legal and a position that’s fair. They may not always be the same thing.
Technology is eroding the gap between formal, social and hidden spaces. Is love private anymore? Is religion a matter of faith or a matter of pragmatism.
Say you are connected to someone socially who lives in a country where homosexuality is illegal (there are around 80 countries in the world where that’s the case today). In work, they are exemplary in their performance and behaviour, but on Facebook they say something that you or i would find ethically reprehensible (although by the legal and ethical frameworks they may live within, perfectly acceptable). The technology let’s us see this, but it doesn’t help us navigate it.
Does the organisation have a moral right to examine what’s said in the Social Space?
I met someone this week who explained that she could never be on Facebook because of the consequences if a photo of her drunk got out.
But is that fair? Do we not all have a right to do whatever we like, within the legal and ethical frameworks of our culture, in our own free time? We are not indentured to organisations that can no longer give us a job for life and may not even earn our trust.
We can wield out the old argument about bringing the organisation into disrepute, but is that a two way street? Who is liable if a fund manager carries out insider dealing and brings the bank into the news. Are they brining your reputation into disrepute by association?
In the Social Age, we need a fair contract between organisation and individual: one does not own the other. Trust is earned and repaid. We are all human: there is no doubt a lot of work to be done to navigate the ethical challenges that may exist in global businesses, but we have a right to our privacy.
In Social Leadership, i write about ‘humility’ and fairness: doing what’s right. This is the line that socially responsible organisations need to tread.
Just because we can see, doesn’t mean we should look.