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Source: Diane Swanson, 785-532-4352, swanson@k-state.edu
http://www.k-state.edu/media/mediaguide/bios/swansonbio.html
News release prepared by: Tyler Sharp, 785-532-2535, media@k-state.edu

Monday, Aug. 1, 2011

GAME CHANGER: BUSINESS ETHICS EXPERT WEIGHS IN ON MONITORING ONLINE IDENTITY OF PROSPECTIVE, CURRENT EMPLOYEES

MANHATTAN -- Should businesses monitor the social media activities of their employees? A Kansas State University business ethics expert says the practice can be a double-edge sword.

Such monitoring is available through companies like Social Intelligence, which provides businesses with archived data from social media sites for use in preventing online damage to their reputations. But the data also can be used to screen potential employees and to monitor the social media activities of current employees.

"I understand the need of a business to protect its reputation," said Diane Swanson, professor of management and chair of a business ethics education initiative. "But in terms of employees' rights, the practice coexists uneasily with the expectation of personal privacy."

Use of Social Intelligence could create considerable changes in employee communication, Swanson said. Potentially, the practice could create a climate of fear and distrust. These effects could be detrimental to morale and hurt productivity.

To prevent such a situation, Swanson recommends that companies craft policies and provide expectations of employee's online conduct. This would shift the emphasis from monitoring to creating shared understanding between employers and employees. Further steps would also be necessary.

"A company should provide full disclosure of its monitoring practices and the consequences employees would face if they violated stated policy and hurt the business' reputation," Swanson said.

Without such full disclosure, an individual employee would be operating without the benefit of knowing important rules of conduct. This could be construed as unfair, especially given the relative power of large organizations compared to that of lone individuals, Swanson said.

The approach is also necessary because of the lack of laws regarding companies like Social Intelligence. Data collected by Social Intelligence follows the Fair Credit Reporting Act. It also does not include basic demographic information. But the monitoring and screening can provide any message or tweet deemed worthy of mention. The approach could prove negative for businesses if valued employees are ousted or alienated in the process, Swanson said.

"If a business is worried about this, the best way to handle it proactively is for the expectations to be laid down when employees are hired," Swanson said. "This should be followed by training sessions and discussions related to performance evaluations. That way, management can strive to head off problems and be part of the solution instead of being viewed as heavy-handed."

Swanson suggests the loss of personal privacy in social media activities is emblematic of larger societal trends.

"We are getting used to what could be considered violations of our privacy from what has been happening with government practices and now on the corporate side," Swanson said. "Such practices cause tension in a society where citizens traditionally value individualism and look to the law to protect the expectation of privacy."

Because online surveillance appears to be proliferating, Swanson believes that ultimately public policy and the courts will establish more definitive guidelines.

"The problem is that technology outpaces the ability of the law and public policy to keep up," she said.

Meanwhile caution should be exercised.

"The more people are aware of this practice, the more they will be empowered to make smart decisions," Swanson said.