The notion that junior lawyers’ social media comments are not connected to their employer’s brand is contrary to common sense, as it is with any employer. Even if your employer has no restricting clause in a code of conduct or social media policy, it’s simply foolhardy.
First, it’s selfish. You need to think of your colleagues who may be embarrassed or offended by your faith or other convictions. Yes, you have free speech rights, but you are also part of a team, and your epistles can negatively impact the group culture even when it may encourage strong and honest conversations.
Second, you need to consider your role as an ambassador for your employer. To varying extents, the reputation of our employer is affected by the way each of us behaves: what we do and what we say, including outside working hours. How you are perceived personally and professionally is the same and, like it or not, professional services are sensitive to this – the more you are out there, the higher the risk.
Third, some clients or prospective clients may object to your online rants; for instance, a conservative client who values privacy or takes an opposing view. A few years ago, during the heat of the ‘sugar wars’, one of our staff tweeted an anti-sugar tweet. We almost lost one of our clients reliant on selling products containing sugar. “It’s a private view” is not a persuasive excuse for the person managing the relationship.
Fourth, we live in an age of digital permanence. What you say on social media is there forever; there are third-party websites that archive every post, so even deleting your original tweet is ineffective. What you say now, you may have to defend in a decade or more, as might your then employer. If you want a family or personal discussion, or want to virtue signal, find a private forum (or ensure your anonymity when on public channels).
Your reputation is so important, and for most of us it takes so long to create. It can be trashed with one silly accident.
On the flip side, we maintain that employers also share a responsibility in caring for your reputation. What is acceptable conduct on social media is part common sense, but also part learned – so employers have a duty of care to share in the latter.
First, the leaders have to future-ready themselves by developing an understanding of the power of online and social media, the risks, where it might be heading, and how their staff should use it. They should form a pragmatic view that balances the individual’s free speech rights against their role as ambassadors promoting the reputation of the organisation. This is difficult for leaders as absolute-wisdom is an oxymoron in this area, as what is acceptable socially is rapidly changing.
Second, leaders have to develop a policy that includes establishing clear expectations around how staff behave online. Often, what younger employees think they should be able to say is entirely different to what leaders understand to be acceptable. The onus is on the law firms to clearly communicate and maintain the acceptable boundaries.
Third, this should include training and a support structure, with a clear and empathetic disciplinary process. If not now, then in future it may be a challenge for leaders to identify issues with employees’ communications before they escalate to a problem, without unduly invading privacy.
We are really excited by the power of social and digital media, still in its relative infancy, and what it might become. The way it connects us, and will connect us, with family and friends has the potential to be almost utopian. Used cleverly, it gives each of us a voice that’s revolutionising the way the powerful may be kept in check.
Peter Wilkinson is the chair of Wilkinson Butler, a Sydney-based corporate affairs consultancy. His specialty is crisis management. He is a former television journalist.