Ethical dilemma: Inappropriate posts on an employee’s personal social media


Three AHRI members explain how they’d respond to a situation where an employee reports inappropriate content posted on a colleague’s social media account.

In part seven of HRM’s ethical dilemma series, where we ask AHRI members to respond to made-up ethical dilemmas, we explore what HR professionals should do after learning that an employee is offended by a colleague’s social media activity.

The dilemma: inappropriate social media content

A senior marketing executive at your company, John, is an active user of social media and often shares his personal opinions on various topics. Recently, some of John’s posts have been brought to your attention by a concerned colleague.

In these posts, John has weighed in on a hot-button social issue involving specific cultural groups. The employee who flagged the posts found them offensive, as they felt that John’s words had racist undertones. 

John’s social media accounts are publicly accessible, and his views are in direct opposition to the company’s stance on the social issues he is discussing. To address the complaint, you call John into a meeting and raise the issue with him, reminding him of the company’s diversity and inclusion and social media policies. 

John reacts combatively, telling you that the organisation has no right to control what he posts on his personal social media accounts. He also doesn’t believe the content was racist. After a long discussion, John is still upset by the situation and has not agreed to take down the posts or stop posting about the issue in question. The employee who reported John is dissatisfied with this result, which creates tension between the two.

What should you do next?

Joanne’s response

I’d meet again individually with John and my colleague to have a dialogue with them, suspending my judgement and, with genuine curiosity, seek to understand their views.

With an open mind, I’d ask questions to gain clarity on their position and better understand their perspective. In this conversation, I’d hope to uncover insights into their beliefs and values, some of which may be deeply held. Gaining insight into their values and beliefs is important as it enables empathy and often brings to light motivators for the behaviour.  

Then I’d organise a mediated discussion between them. I’d influence the situation by finding congruent values and beliefs that emphasise common ground on the issue. However, it is also important to acknowledge differences and to highlight the need for us to respect that we each have our own belief system.

Finally, I’d draw upon the organisation’s values to assist with a way forward. This involves recognising diversity in the views and beliefs of colleagues and simultaneously focusing on the expected behaviour to demonstrate respect for diversity. I’d emphasise how we present ourselves externally as being one of the ways employees are expected to demonstrate the values of the organisation they are working for and representing.

Michael’s response

When facing an ethical dilemma, it’s important to consider whether one’s actions would be capable of withstanding both public and media scrutiny. In the case of perceived racist comments by a senior executive, such actions would likely fail both forms of scrutiny, indicating an ethical lapse on their behalf.

Firstly, I would initiate an investigation based on several factors. The senior executive’s position in the company: the potential for escalation to the Australian Human Rights Commission by the complainant, plus the involved employee’s rigid and combative stance surrounding the matter.

As a follow-up conversation with John, I would emphasise several points. Firstly, even though the remarks were via private access, their posting in a public forum renders them as public comments. Secondly, as a senior executive, alignment with the company’s position is expected in public statements as these may be perceived as a representation of the company’s position. 

Thirdly, I would remind John of his obligations under the company’s code of conduct, standards of behaviour, communication standards and employment contract. Fourthly, I would highlight that racially insensitive comments may likely harm the company’s reputation and ultimately impact the company’s revenue. 

Finally, I would advise John of the risk of civil proceedings against both him and the company by the complainant as a course of action.

Concluding the process, I would issue John a written warning, denouncing his behaviour as inappropriate and unbecoming of his position. The warning would underscore that further continuation of his action may result in termination of employment.

Meghan’s response

In advance of meeting with John, the post itself should be verified. A review of business policies (e.g. social media, anti-discrimination, code of conduct), as well as agreed contract terms, should be undertaken. I would then speak with John, armed with this information, to effectively have the conversation and to understand options for next steps.

Should the post be confirmed to be contravening policy or contract terms then the appropriate disciplinary process should be followed. Ideally, this outcome would request that John remove the post. In the absence of a policy to reference, relevant sources outside the business could be sought. For example, if the post has damaged the business’s reputation, some form of disciplinary action may be required. 

At a minimum, this incident would trigger the business to review and update its policies, and ensure all staff are aware of and trained in these matters (which would hopefully mitigate future incidents). 

A reminder to the team, particularly senior members, of their responsibility in providing a safe working environment wouldn’t go astray.

Throughout the process, the team member who brought the post(s) to the attention of the business should be thanked, supported and informed of the business process being followed, as appropriate.

What would you do? Let us know in the comment section.

This article first appeared in the October 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.


If you suspect an employee has engaged in misconduct, what should you do next? AHRI’s short course, Investigating Workplace Misconduct, can provide some answers.


 

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JanineA
JanineA
6 months ago

I find Meghan’s response professionally appropriate and reflective of best practice HR management and business. Well done.

Julie Browne
Julie Browne
6 months ago

I too believe Meghan’s approach to be more effective and more than likely a better outcome

Sandy Franklin
Sandy Franklin
6 months ago

I do agree, I think Meghan provides the better approach for a mainstream employee, as it is fair and not too hard line. I cannot agree with the approach to send a ‘reminder’ to the team of their responsibility. I hate this approach by leadership/HR as it chastises the masses for the errors of an individual, which is completely unfair, unreasonable and often confusing. Chastise the individual as they were the one who faltered. In this scenario I probably prefer Michael’s approach from the point of view that John is a senior executive and at this level he should be… Read more »

Mark McPherson
Mark McPherson
6 months ago

I don’t think this is an ethical issue at all.
The person’s behaviour (and it needs to be clearly worked out exactly what we are talking about) is either something you should do something about (speak to the person informally, speak to them as part of some form of counselling session, formally discipline person, etc) because it is your designated responsibility to do it because the person has broken their work contract, the policies and procedures of the organisations etc or they have not.

Melissa
Melissa
6 months ago

I find it interesting that none, but perhaps Joanne, have considered that the view posted on social media may not actually be unethical, rather, that is simply may be an opposing view. I do think in this day or polarising views on everything from what should inhabit a child’s lunchbox through to whether to vote yes or no on the Voice, the narrative is such that any opposing view tk your own is simply wrong. The concept of respectful free thinking dialogue seems destined for the history books. So. Joanne at least seeks to understand the opposing view and potentially… Read more »

1 2 3
More on HRM

Ethical dilemma: Inappropriate posts on an employee’s personal social media


Three AHRI members explain how they’d respond to a situation where an employee reports inappropriate content posted on a colleague’s social media account.

In part seven of HRM’s ethical dilemma series, where we ask AHRI members to respond to made-up ethical dilemmas, we explore what HR professionals should do after learning that an employee is offended by a colleague’s social media activity.

The dilemma: inappropriate social media content

A senior marketing executive at your company, John, is an active user of social media and often shares his personal opinions on various topics. Recently, some of John’s posts have been brought to your attention by a concerned colleague.

In these posts, John has weighed in on a hot-button social issue involving specific cultural groups. The employee who flagged the posts found them offensive, as they felt that John’s words had racist undertones. 

John’s social media accounts are publicly accessible, and his views are in direct opposition to the company’s stance on the social issues he is discussing. To address the complaint, you call John into a meeting and raise the issue with him, reminding him of the company’s diversity and inclusion and social media policies. 

John reacts combatively, telling you that the organisation has no right to control what he posts on his personal social media accounts. He also doesn’t believe the content was racist. After a long discussion, John is still upset by the situation and has not agreed to take down the posts or stop posting about the issue in question. The employee who reported John is dissatisfied with this result, which creates tension between the two.

What should you do next?

Joanne’s response

I’d meet again individually with John and my colleague to have a dialogue with them, suspending my judgement and, with genuine curiosity, seek to understand their views.

With an open mind, I’d ask questions to gain clarity on their position and better understand their perspective. In this conversation, I’d hope to uncover insights into their beliefs and values, some of which may be deeply held. Gaining insight into their values and beliefs is important as it enables empathy and often brings to light motivators for the behaviour.  

Then I’d organise a mediated discussion between them. I’d influence the situation by finding congruent values and beliefs that emphasise common ground on the issue. However, it is also important to acknowledge differences and to highlight the need for us to respect that we each have our own belief system.

Finally, I’d draw upon the organisation’s values to assist with a way forward. This involves recognising diversity in the views and beliefs of colleagues and simultaneously focusing on the expected behaviour to demonstrate respect for diversity. I’d emphasise how we present ourselves externally as being one of the ways employees are expected to demonstrate the values of the organisation they are working for and representing.

Michael’s response

When facing an ethical dilemma, it’s important to consider whether one’s actions would be capable of withstanding both public and media scrutiny. In the case of perceived racist comments by a senior executive, such actions would likely fail both forms of scrutiny, indicating an ethical lapse on their behalf.

Firstly, I would initiate an investigation based on several factors. The senior executive’s position in the company: the potential for escalation to the Australian Human Rights Commission by the complainant, plus the involved employee’s rigid and combative stance surrounding the matter.

As a follow-up conversation with John, I would emphasise several points. Firstly, even though the remarks were via private access, their posting in a public forum renders them as public comments. Secondly, as a senior executive, alignment with the company’s position is expected in public statements as these may be perceived as a representation of the company’s position. 

Thirdly, I would remind John of his obligations under the company’s code of conduct, standards of behaviour, communication standards and employment contract. Fourthly, I would highlight that racially insensitive comments may likely harm the company’s reputation and ultimately impact the company’s revenue. 

Finally, I would advise John of the risk of civil proceedings against both him and the company by the complainant as a course of action.

Concluding the process, I would issue John a written warning, denouncing his behaviour as inappropriate and unbecoming of his position. The warning would underscore that further continuation of his action may result in termination of employment.

Meghan’s response

In advance of meeting with John, the post itself should be verified. A review of business policies (e.g. social media, anti-discrimination, code of conduct), as well as agreed contract terms, should be undertaken. I would then speak with John, armed with this information, to effectively have the conversation and to understand options for next steps.

Should the post be confirmed to be contravening policy or contract terms then the appropriate disciplinary process should be followed. Ideally, this outcome would request that John remove the post. In the absence of a policy to reference, relevant sources outside the business could be sought. For example, if the post has damaged the business’s reputation, some form of disciplinary action may be required. 

At a minimum, this incident would trigger the business to review and update its policies, and ensure all staff are aware of and trained in these matters (which would hopefully mitigate future incidents). 

A reminder to the team, particularly senior members, of their responsibility in providing a safe working environment wouldn’t go astray.

Throughout the process, the team member who brought the post(s) to the attention of the business should be thanked, supported and informed of the business process being followed, as appropriate.

What would you do? Let us know in the comment section.

This article first appeared in the October 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.


If you suspect an employee has engaged in misconduct, what should you do next? AHRI’s short course, Investigating Workplace Misconduct, can provide some answers.


 

Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

23 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
JanineA
JanineA
6 months ago

I find Meghan’s response professionally appropriate and reflective of best practice HR management and business. Well done.

Julie Browne
Julie Browne
6 months ago

I too believe Meghan’s approach to be more effective and more than likely a better outcome

Sandy Franklin
Sandy Franklin
6 months ago

I do agree, I think Meghan provides the better approach for a mainstream employee, as it is fair and not too hard line. I cannot agree with the approach to send a ‘reminder’ to the team of their responsibility. I hate this approach by leadership/HR as it chastises the masses for the errors of an individual, which is completely unfair, unreasonable and often confusing. Chastise the individual as they were the one who faltered. In this scenario I probably prefer Michael’s approach from the point of view that John is a senior executive and at this level he should be… Read more »

Mark McPherson
Mark McPherson
6 months ago

I don’t think this is an ethical issue at all.
The person’s behaviour (and it needs to be clearly worked out exactly what we are talking about) is either something you should do something about (speak to the person informally, speak to them as part of some form of counselling session, formally discipline person, etc) because it is your designated responsibility to do it because the person has broken their work contract, the policies and procedures of the organisations etc or they have not.

Melissa
Melissa
6 months ago

I find it interesting that none, but perhaps Joanne, have considered that the view posted on social media may not actually be unethical, rather, that is simply may be an opposing view. I do think in this day or polarising views on everything from what should inhabit a child’s lunchbox through to whether to vote yes or no on the Voice, the narrative is such that any opposing view tk your own is simply wrong. The concept of respectful free thinking dialogue seems destined for the history books. So. Joanne at least seeks to understand the opposing view and potentially… Read more »

1 2 3
More on HRM