Walking the digital tightrope: The perils of co-branded employees

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By Megan Totka

Before businesses began to really cash in on the power of social media, people were signing up for Twitter, Facebook and MySpace accounts in the privacy of their homes. These platforms allowed a new medium for self-expression, along with networking opportunities. Businesses began to see the advantages of connecting with their customers and started using social media, too.  Just over five years into the social media boom, it is not uncommon to see individual accounts with hundreds, or even thousands, of followers or friends. While there is nothing wrong with being popular in online circles, an unexpected consequence has arisen for businesses: co-branded employees.

Along with large social media followings, co-branded employees often have a popular blog or website. Generally these online personas are associated with a particular industry. This can cause some problems for businesses that have no oversight, but could be connected to these online opinions by association. The Wall Street Journal recently called this trend the “newest management headache,” citing the fact that while co-branded employees can benefit their employers, they often clash instead.

So why don’t businesses just ban the use of social media as it directly relates to operations? While this may seem the easiest answer, it is not feasible. For one thing, many new employees arrive with social media accounts already intact. In some cases, these accounts, and blogs, already have strong followings;  getting rid of them is a deal-breaker when it comes time to negotiate a job offer.

The complexities of hiring an online star

Having a popular online persona in a certain industry is also often viewed as an asset to employers. It stands to reason that an individual with a strong following online can only bring more clout to a company’s reputation. Hiring an online star can also lead to better recruitment of other high-profile employees.

Businesses also face some legal complexities when it comes to banning or limiting social media interaction. More and more, employees are filing legal complaints against employers that try to limit the “free speech” that the Internet provides. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported 10,000 cases of reported employment related disputes in 2010 – a record number that was due, in part, to social media disagreements. Employers often find that it is easier to tread softly when it comes to social media and online persona issues than to wind up on the losing end of a costly lawsuit.

But fully accepting co-branded employees as part of a company’s culture is a slippery slope. Without full control of these online locations, a company faces liability issues on several levels. One of the worst is the social media gaffe, which I explored in my earlier post.

These conflicts of interest most often arise from differing opinions. An employee with a strong online following may have drastically different views on his industry than his employer. For example, an insurance company that publicly embraces healthcare reform may face issues with an employee that blogs against the changes. While that employee may spout off in his “free time,” those comments could still be associated with the company, especially if the employee holds a management or executive position.

Managing inflated egos

Another negative effect of co-branded employees comes in the form of inflated egos. High numbers of social media followers or blog readers may give employees high opinions of their worth to the company and industry as a whole. This can lead to an expectation of a higher salary, even if none of the fame directly increases company revenue. Dissension among colleagues can also arise – especially if co-workers feel that the co-branded employee spends too much time networking or blogging, and not enough time handling core work responsibilities. Management must walk a fine line to accommodate co-branded employees that boost business without it appearing to be favoritism.

While company policies can address some of these issues, the impact of co-branded employees – for better or for worse – is still evolving. In the best case scenario, co-branded employees get to keep their online personas and boost their employers’ credibility at the same time. It is certainly a better outlook than facing a discriminatory lawsuit on the part of an employee-turned-online-star. The power of one voice online is often stronger than a corporate mouthpiece. The trick for employers is learning how to harness this strength for their own good.

Image: Inspiringbetterlife

Megan Totka is the Chief Editor for U.S. ChamberofCommerce.com. She specializes on the topics of small business tips and resources, and technology. ChamberofCommerce.com helps small businesses grow their businesses on the web and facilitates connectivity between local businesses and over 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide.

/// COMMENTS

One Comment »
  • Nick Stamoulis

    November 21, 2012 11:31 am

    It is cases like these which is why organizations need a social media policy. Even if your employee isn’t a blogging superstar on their own, there need to be guidelines as to what can be posted on either the company’s website, or on their personal sites and social media networks. Clearly defining what is acceptable will help establish a clear division between the employee’s company related work and personal endeavors.

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