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Does the blurring between professional and personal networks online concern you?

26 October 2015 by Henry Ker

Yes 68%
No 18%
Maybe 15%

There have recently been revelations that employees used their work email addresses to sign up for extra-marital dating website Ashley Madison, something which had both personal and professional reputational fallout. It is clearly easy to forget that personal activity online can sometimes be seen by all. Despite these risks, ICSA’s summer Bellwether found a third of respondents have not discussed a social media policy at board level. This month we asked the Governance and Compliance/Core community whether the blurred boundaries between personal and professional online networks concerned them.

Over two thirds (68%) agreed that it does raise concerns; 18% said it does not and 15% answered ‘maybe’. When asked how they consider their reputation before posting, the answers included those who commented with ‘extreme care’; those who said they ‘keep [their] professional profile and personal profiles very separate’; and those who said simply ‘I do not post online outside of work’.

Although the last category is the easiest way to avoid damaging your professional reputation, it is perhaps not realistic for most of us to adopt this approach. The prevalence of social media will mean that the majority of us have at least one account.

The majority suggested exercising caution and offered several motives. One said ‘It is essential to consider any potential impact, no matter how remote it may seem’ and another said ‘I mentally check how my comments will be regarded by others before posting.’ Another respondent expanded on this, commenting on the importance of your settings: ‘Take great care over security settings of social media but never post anything that would be regarded as inappropriate or offensive by colleagues, clients or pupils or their parents!’ Similarly, another explained, ‘although I have a Facebook account, it does not reference my job or the company for which I work and I do not have any colleagues as friends on Facebook. I use LinkedIn for professional purposes only.’

The other category draws on this theme – make the effort to keep your networks separate. As one commenter said, ‘I keep my professional profile and personal profile very separate and restrict access to my personal profile to trusted friends’, they then went on to explain another risk, that of identity theft: ‘I have had experience of people pretending to have my current job on Linkedin and copying other people’s profiles.’

Another explained the importance of this approach, but acknowledged the problems: ‘The easiest way to avoid damaging a professional reputation is to not mix personal and professional. However, I suspect that younger people would not have such rigid boundaries and I recognise that I am potentially handicapping myself by doing this. Perhaps, most importantly, by not allowing colleagues full access to me as a person rather than just a job title.’

The answer links back to the earlier Bellwether statistic, as respondent said: ‘From a company perspective we are developing a long overdue social media policy which in any event is underpinned by the contractual requirement not to bring the company into disrepute.’ Make the limits clear to employees, leave no grey area about what is acceptable and despite the increasingly blurred network boundaries, they may make a conscious and decisive effort to separate professional from personal. One final respondent wisely advised: ‘I rarely press “send” immediately (I’ve rewritten this sentence three times)’.

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