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When personal and professional lives converge

Sheena Mayers, Labour management advisor

When personal and professional lives converge

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Should you keep strict lines of division between personal and public life? You can try, but that is extremely difficult to do. Simple cell phone apps, like Whatsapp, mean that your professional contacts can see your profile. We live in an ever increasingly small world; telecommunications, social media and the internet have all converged to make our personal lives more public than at any other given time in history. The result is that the line between our personal and professional life is no longer clear, but is a blurred zig-zag, and for some the line may not even exist.

Even before you commence a new job, your personal life may have been scrutinised and therefore was influential in the decision to offer you the post. Many hiring decisions are taken after employers have perused a potential employee’s online presence; newspaper articles, LinkedIn profiles and graduation pictures can be revealed through a simple internet search. Some persons may argue that these types of actions are unethical; however there is a school of thought that believes that once you have made it a public document or placed it on a website, then it can be viewed. Just as employers conduct traditional reference checks, they can also review online social media accounts – once the profile is public – or simple run an internet search to verify elements on the curriculum vitae or simply to see what is in the public domain.

While on the job there are also some grey areas where your personal and professional life may collide. Many companies discourage in-office romantic affairs and especially so within reporting lines. Should human resources have a say in who an employee dates? The simple fact is that relationships, especially those between a direct report and his/her supervisor, can potentially lead to an uncomfortable work environment; the potential for claims of preferential treatment by other employees and difficulties within the relationship may spill over into the office setting.

In recent times, there have been many stories of CEOs and other prominent business people who have lost their jobs due to personal indiscretions such as extra marital affairs. Additionally social media has also been the downfall of professionals when personal tweets and status updates are seen as controversial; sometimes including racist, elitist or sexist comments. Company image and reputation are the impetus for such termination decisions and it is easy to comprehend when it concerns the public perception of high ranking individuals in the company. From the company’s view point the personal indiscretions of executives have the potential to do major reputational damage. So while it may seem as though it is a private matter, companies have an image they need to maintain and employees are extensions of that company. So what happens when the individual is not a high level executive but a junior team member? Are they treated the same?

Outside of reputational damage, personal indiscretions impact on trust and confidence in the workplace. An employee who makes racial comments on a personal blog will create a hostile environment in the workplace; their co-workers will be uncomfortable and not wish to work with them. So while the comment may not have been within the business setting, it may have serious repercussions for workplace relationships.

Sometimes employers have a tough decision to make. Should they get involved or should they ignore the situation? Here are some points to consider:

Will this result in reputational damage to the company? By acting will I violate the employee’s rights?

Is anyone, including other employees, negatively affected by the employee’s actions? Does the act have the potential to inhibit the employee’s performance? Additionally, employees should take the foregoing into account when evaluating their actions.

Confidentiality and conflict of interest clauses are common features of employee handbooks and employment contracts. These were used to establish distinctions with personal life especially where employees engaged in private business. Recently many companies have recognised the benefits of having workplace relationship policies and social media policies. If you are thinking of an internet usage or social media policy, you may want to give consideration to addressing the below: require employees make disclaimers on personal media communications, for example, blogs. State that negative and disparaging comments about the company and or employees will not be tolerated.

Remind persons that confidential and proprietary information must be kept private – privacy rights of other employees and your customers must be respected.

While it may be difficult to establish where your personal life ends and the professional one begins, what is paramount is for employees to use common sense and good judgement in their interactions both online and in person.