Social Networking and the Workplace

Tyler Jewell


            Since the beginnings of American society, America has used news media as its primary tool to distribute information. Media is involved in nearly every aspect of everyday life. From morning until night, citizens are constantly bombarded by media images on television, radio, magazines, and the internet. However, since the mid-2000’s, one form of media has dominated the social landscape. This type of media has entirely changed the way other media connects with its viewers. It has shifted the power of information from the select few to the masses, from the broadcaster to the audience. It has given the individual voice a pedestal. It has made information faster, busier, more streamlined, more hectic, more interactive, all at the same time. Its name is social networking.

            One area of that social media has transformed entirely is American business. Now, in 2013, companies can use social media to their advantage; by analyzing posts to determine the opinions of the general public, they can identify which aspects of their advertising campaigns and public relations are working successfully. This helps businesses stay in direct contact with their customers. They can use this information to better promote their products, their brands, and themselves by directing their advertising to what people want. However, social media has also caused a large dilemma in the workplace. When interviewing applicants for job positions, many businesses will check the applicants’ Facebook and Twitter histories in order to find anything that would positively or (more often) negatively affect their overall resumes. In addition, companies have fired employees for their comments and posts on these social media sites. As of late, companies are continuously searching for more power over their employees’ internet freedoms, penalizing employees in attempt to constrain and censor their posts.

 So why are businesses discriminating against potential employees based on their social media history? If the analytical data received via sites such as Facebook and Twitter positively contribute to the evolution of big businesses, why do companies penalize employees for their posts? In addition, what is credited as social media, what is its purpose, and why is it misused as a tool to evaluate employees? Companies and businesses should not penalize or limit workers for their posts on social media sites, and they should not check potential employee’s social media pages during the application process. The intentions of social media, the nature of social media posts, and the changing landscape of an internet savvy business culture make social media posts obsolete in the employee evaluation process.

Although news media talks about how social media affects American entertainment, psychology, and culture, few sources have definitively addressed what “social networking” implies. Because there is so much cross-over between social networking and other forms of media, the line between what is and what is not social media is very blurred. However, without a true definition of social networking, it is impossible to discuss its place in the media, in the workplace and in everyday life. It is necessary to understand what social networking is and what it is not in order to determine its purpose in society. While many believe social networking is one broad branch of networking with one general goal, this is not the case. “Social networking” is, in fact, a broad phrase to describe thousands of different social media types, each with its own unique set of purposes.

            Before the internet, “social networking” simply referred to “a network of social interactions and personal relationships” (“social network”). This was a very concrete definition of the term, as it included the entirety of people a person would converse with (“social”) in order to establish a bond between themselves and the other person (“network”). Now, with social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, the phrase “social networking” has adopted two additional definitions. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may also imply “a dedicated website or other application which enables users to communicate with each other by posting information, comments, messages, etc.” (“social network”).

With more than one billion monthly viewers, Facebook is currently the largest social media site (Facebook 1). Founder Mark Zuckerburg created Facebook in 2004 with the mission to “to make the world more open and connected” (Facebook 1). Facebook allows members to post statuses, photos, and videos chronicling their everyday lives. In addition, users can update personal information, such as their birthdate, hometown, occupation, and relationship status. (Facebook 1). Although some accounts are set to “public,” allowing anyone and everyone to view the account, many accounts are set to “private.” On a private account, the only people who can visit a person’s profile are their Facebook “friends” (people the user has chosen to allow on his or her page). According to Facebook’s mission statement, “People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them” (Facebook 1). In essence, Facebook is a one-stop shop for media users, as they can connect with their real life friends by commenting as “friends” on Facebook.

            Twitter, on the other hand, is a more instantaneous version of social media. On Twitter, users have the ability to “tweet” to their “followers” (followers are the equivalent to “friends” on Facebook; only the relationship between the “follower” and the “followed” is not necessarily mutual) (Brock 531). In a “tweet,” a user has 140 characters to post whatever text, emoticon, or website url he or she feels like making public to the people who care about his or her opinion (Twitter 1). By doing this, “Twitter’s follow mechanism serves to create content allowing users to build personal information environments centered around topics and people of interest” (Brock 531). When multiple Twitter users find the same set of topics and people interesting, they become trending topics on Twitter (Twitter 1). This is useful for advertisers and other types of media, as they can see what their audience wants and cares about.

            While many enjoy the openness of these social media sites, the debate about the privacy of Facebook and Twitter accounts still continues. While many Facebook and Twitter pages are set to a “private” setting, many companies are able to check private accounts regardless. This presents a problem, as the fear of demoralizing themselves in the market pushes users away from posting personal material on Facebook, thereby contradicting the intent of the site.

            So why use social media sites? If Facebook and Twitter serve only as an employment death trap for potential employees, why take the risk and post personal property on social media sites? In a world where connections between friends and colleagues are of the upmost importance, Facebook becomes necessary to establish, build, and retain relationships people obtain in the real world. In a study titled “‘Are We Facebook Official?’ Implications of Dating Partners’ Facebook use and Profiles for Intimate Relationship Satisfaction,” researchers from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence make the connection that the interaction a person creates with his or her Facebook friends greatly improves the closeness a person has with his or her friends in real life (Papp, Danielwicz, and Cayembourg 1). In addition, Twitter’s ability to make multiple updates “[allows] users to feel stronger connections to their twitter contacts” (Brock 531). The researchers also claim that “we can no longer disregard the potential connections between Facebook and intimate relationships, which serve as one of the most important contexts of individuals’ growth and development” (Papp, Danielwicz, and Cayembourg 1). In today’s society, an individual’s connection to his or her virtual friends is as important as his or her connection to his or her actual friends. So why Facebook and Twitter? The answer is simple: there is no other option.

            Social media has become so important to users’ personal lives that it cannot and should not be used to affect other aspects of their lives. If companies and businesses were to use Facebook and Twitter history to judge an applicant’s character, it would contradict the purpose of social media and detract from that individual. Social media is not a job portfolio. It is not a resume. It doesn’t serve as a letter of recommendation, and applicant form, or a P.R. representative. Social media is exactly what its name implies: a free-standing, user-generated platform for users to communicate and socialize with his or her followers and friends. Anything that would contradict this purpose would defeat the purpose of social media.

            For most adolescents and young adults, social media pages do not correctly portray the character and personality of the person who runs them. Many of these people started their social media pages during middle school or high school, times when people change their personality and behavior the most. Unfortunately, anything that is posted on a social media page generally sticks to that social media page permanently. This is unfortunate not only because many people who are entering the workplace are being evaluated on posts that are ages old, but also because these posts may have no correlation to the personality traits of the current individual.

In a research study titled “Stability and Change in Positive Development During Young Adulthood,” researchers from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence conceptualize the positives and negatives of the character development process in an attempt to better understand the factors of adolescence that contribute to social development and the ways they affect the individual both positively and negatively. The experimental study bases its structure on the findings of social capitol theory, life course and life span psychology, and positive psychology  to create the five “first-order psychosocial domains” - civic action and engagement, trust and tolerance of others, trust in authorities and organizations, social competence, and life satisfaction- that lead to positive development ( Hawkins et al. 2). To approach these psychosocial domains, the research samples the ATP, a large population of families recruited from Maternal and Child Health Centers in 1983 (Hawkins et al. 5). The survey given to the participants as part of the study asked questions that pertained to the five psychosocial domains leading to positive development. These questions, which are phrased as statements on a Likert scale, helped establish the participants’ level of compliancy to a particular domain. “Most people in your neighborhood can be Trusted,” for example, is a statement used in the survey to analyze a person’s Trust and Tolerance of Others (Hawkins et al. 6). A low score on this answer implies that the person disagrees completely, and he or she does not trust members of the community. A high score would imply the opposite. Through the survey of the ATP, researchers found that the development of these five constructs could be achieved in both age groups. In both age groups, “the social capital constructs of civic action and engagement, trust and tolerance of others, and trust in authorities and organizations related coherently to the psychological construct of  life satisfaction” (Hawkins et al. 12) . Both age groups were able to attain the first order psychosocial domain traits necessary for positive development. Therefore, the authors logically concluded that the age of development does not inhibit a person’s ability to develop in a positive manner.

This data is important because it denounces any reason for employers to check any social media posts that are not in the present. Social media posts are not indicative to the person who posted them; they are merely a snapshot of the person who posted them at that time. Because studies have shown the age in which a person develops his or her behavior and personality does not affect the quality of the person, these past social media posts have no correlation to the current individual. If past opinions and posts shared on social media do not reflect the personality and character traits of the employee or applicant, then the reasons employers are checking these posts are null and void.

So why are businesses concerned about their employees social media identities? Businesses and companies understand the growing influence of social media. Large television networks such as ABC/ESPN use hashtags (a form of Twitter communication) in their commercials to provoke user-generated hype for primetime shows and sporting events (Steinberg 1). Wal-Mart and Taco-bell use their Facebook pages to advertise new products, deals, and ad campaigns (Neff 1). Even smaller, “mom and pop” stores ask for “likes” and “follows” on Facebook and Twitter to promote awareness for their businesses. Employers are cracking down on social media posts not because they lack understanding about social media. In fact, it may most likely be the opposite: businesses may understand social media too well.

In all of the examples mentioned above, networks, businesses, and companies are attempting to use the power of social media to improve the image of either their products or themselves. They understand that the biggest asset social media sites provide for companies is their ability to dramatically affect their own public image, and by advertising on social media, businesses and companies hope to improve their public reception. So when an individual or small group posts negative opinions and information about his or her employer, it is easy to see why companies are quick to react, as they understand the power social media and public opinion can sway their public reception, both for better and for worse.

Businesses began their attempts of limiting access to social media by prohibiting sites such as Facebook and Twitter from being used during work hours. They claimed that interaction with social media during work hours reduces an employee’s overall daily productivity, and this was a valid claim. In 2009, workers at several Taiwanese firms were unable to keep up with their work because of their addictions to Facebook and the newly released Facebook game “Happy Farm” (the equivalent to “Farmville” in the United States) (Ying Chao Lin 196). In addition, the over-exposure to Facebook workers experienced throughout the work day increased their temptations and addictions to the site (Ying Chao Lin 199). Over time, a never-ending cycle of increased Facebook addiction and decreased workplace productivity began to unfold (Ying Chao Lin 197). Even employees could understand the difficulties social media brought to the working environment, and many companies restricted social media access without much opposition (Ying Chao Lin 197).

Soon, companies began penalizing employees for posting negative comments about their employers on social media. Businesses argued that because employees are paid by their employer to improve their company, they are contractually restricted from posting anything that would contradict this goal. Although many have argued employees are entitled to the rights of freedom of speech and press as protected by the first Amendment, employers ultimately won the ability to penalize deconstructive online activity (Carr 48). Although the interaction between employers and their employees on social media was a legitimate concern, the method which companies attempted to end the issue may not have been the proper way of handling the situation. Instead of “[helping] employees...use new and emerging technologies wisely and well”, they instead chose to “stamp out media use” (Carr 48). This suggests companies wanted even more power over social media.

Over time, the power of social media slowly began to gravitate away from the individual employee and towards big businesses and companies. With this shift in power, companies began to attack other combatants through social media. In Scotland, UNISON, the country’s “largest public sector labor union,” attempted to use social media to “educate current and potential union members,” collect support for the union, and provide an open forum for the public to discuss problems in workplaces across the nation (Hearing and Ussery 37). One member of the union filed a complaint against his former employer, stating that she was fired for posting negative comments about her supervisor on such an open forum (Hearing and Ussery 37). According to the National Relations Act, employers are prohibited from “interfering, coercing, or restraining employees from exercising their rights to collectively challenge workplace practices or participate in concerted union activities” (Hearing and Ussery 37). Although the issues between online unions and employers have not been entirely addressed, companies are using their power over social media to restrict their employees’ freedoms in the workplace.

Why would companies want to do this? Why would they want to possess so much power over their employees? Although security is always a main concern for any business plan, it is more important for companies to recognize what their customers want so that they can provide it for them. Social media has proved itself a valuable tool for accomplishing this, as companies can keep direct contact with their customers and clients. Still, companies are penalizing employees for their social media posts. In turn, these employees, who are also customers of several business markets, are discouraged from freely posting their opinions on social media. By doing this, companies are indirectly thinning out their social media data pool, as many of their customers will stop posting on social media altogether. Because of this, evaluating workers through their social media posts not only provides inaccurate information about employees to their employers, but it also detracts from the businesses’ goals in social media.

            Social media has evolved at a faster pace than any other type of media communication in history, and it is an important tool for people and businesses alike. Companies should not view social media in application process nor penalize workers for their posts on social media because the results would be inaccurate, obsolete, and detrimental to the companies’ goals.


Works Cited

Brock, Andre. “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 56.4 (2012): 529-548.

Carr, Nora. “New Media Mayhem.” American School Board Journal 10.1 (2009): 45-47.

Facebook. “Facebook Newsroom.” Facebook. Facebook, Inc., n.d., Web. 7 March 2013.

Hawkins, Mary T., et al. “Stability and Change in Positive Development During Young Adulthood”. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 40.1 (2011): 1436-1452.

Hearng, Gregory A. and Brian C. Ussery. “‘The Times They Are a Changin’: The Impact of Technology and Social Media on the Public Workplace, Part 1.” The Florida Bar Journal  3.2 (2012): 35-39.

Neff, Jack. “A New Way to Walmart Shelves: Social Media.” Advertising Age Oct.2011: 1-4.

Oxford English Dictionary. “Social Network.” OED. Oxford Dictionaries, n.d., Web. 7 March 2013.

Papp, Lauren, Jennifer Danielwicz, and Crystal Cayembourg. “‘Are We Facebook Official?’ Implications of Dating Partner’s Facebook Use and Profiles for Intimate Relationship Satisfaction.” CyberpsychologY, Behavior, and Social Networking 15.2 (2012): 85-90.

Steinberg, Brian. “Could TV Be Bought and Sold Based on Who’s Talking About It? ESPN and CNN Think So.” Advertising Age July 2009: 1-3.

Twitter. “About Twitter”. Twitter. Twitter Inc., n.d., Web. 3 March 2013.

Ying-Chao Lin, Julia, Angelina Nhat Hanh Le, Shadab Khalil, and Julian Ming Sung Cheng. “Social Media Usage and Work Values: The Example of Facebook in Taiwan.” Social Behavior and Personality 40.2 (2012): 195-200.