If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably witnessed (or maybe even been a part of) office communication mishaps that have ranged from mildly embarrassing to career-ending. Early in my career, I witnessed a rogue email chain which spoke of a client in offensive terms. The email accidentally got forwarded to said client. Oops!
No matter how sophisticated our use of social media, we must always be aware of its breadth. It’s easy to feel anxiety over saying the wrong thing, but if you know how to use it well, social media in the office can and should benefit your career.
Therefore, adapt the golden rule to the digital era: Think before you post, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To make sure you are putting your best digital foot forward, follow these easy steps.
1. Understand Company Policy, Best Practices and Culture
If your office hosts an internal social network or digital collaboration space, understand what types of interactions are considered valuable (helping a coworker, for example), vs. actions that would be frowned upon (posting pictures of LOLcats all day). And always stay away from violations of your company policy (like harassment). Make sure you understand not only the written policy, but also the company culture – each company has its own stated and unspoken rules of conduct.
Global consultancy firm Capgemini talks about its use of Yammer, my company’s social network. “Yammer is shared with colleagues in the company — not just your close colleagues — but potentially EVERYONE, from your manager all the way up to the CEO…Our company values are: Honesty, Freedom, Trust, Boldness, Team Spirit, Modesty, and FUN.”
2. Company Communities Evolve Best Practices and Policies
Policy and culture aren’t static — they grow and develop organically, through a community-wide effort. Kate Dobbertin, community manager of one global company’s Yammer network, notes, “I look to the community to foster an open, caring community together. It’s not something I can control alone — the entire community must set the standards for what is or isn’t acceptable.”
In global companies, the definitions of etiquette are tougher to pin down. Ed Krebs, IT architect for Ford Motor Company, shared, “By allowing the community to define, and continually redefine how to communicate, those global differences that were barriers now become points to reshape together. The community gently informs each other about the nuances of language and the alternate interpretation of slang. We needed no new policy, respect is a key ingredient in our corporate code of conduct.”
3. Mixing Personal and Professional
When communicating over your company’s digital channels, your focus should be on getting your work done and helping your colleagues get their work done. On the other hand, mixing a bit of your own “flavor” is always a good thing – humans want to connect with other humans. But remember that you can easily cross the line from approachable to overly personal to the point of discomfort. Ask yourself, “Could this make someone feel uncomfortable?”
4. Public vs. Private Spaces
Take a few minutes to understand the boundary between public and private spaces. Having a clear goal will help you select the right medium and audience. Are you sharing something brilliant that can help others in general, or starting a discussion that will specifically benefit your company? Is it a message that should be public, but benefits a niche audience? Post it to a group. If it’s an action you want just a few people to take, send a private message or an email. Remember the key difference: Emails and IMs are disruptive, while streams provide “ambient awareness.” Don’t be that guy who CCs 20 colleagues with something irrelevant.
5. Be Mindful in Private
A quick word of caution: Just because you post to a private space or send a note to someone’s inbox, doesn’t mean it won’t find its way into the hands of someone else later. If you trash someone in an email, there’s always a chance that this person may see it – whether accidentally or on purpose. It’s always best to protect your reputation by abstaining whenever possible.
6. The New York Times Test
Before writing anything to anyone — publicly or privately — ask yourself if you’d mind seeing it on the front page of the New York Times. That’s exactly what Erin Grotts, director of internal communications at Supervalu tells her colleagues. “We tell people not to post anything that would embarrass you or the company…Would you be comfortable if it ran on the front page of the New York Times?”
Beldner encourages her colleagues to ask, “Would I say this to my company’s president and deputy general counsel in front of 1,000+ other employees?”
7. Become an Expert
If you want to be perceived as an expert, you need to contribute to the conversation. When someone asks a question that you can answer — go for it! Proactively share things that are interesting and ask thought-provoking questions. Remember, though, that quantity doesn’t mean quality.
Maximize your exposure by allowing others to find you. When posting to a public space, anyone can see your message, but there’s always a chance that the right people won’t. To maximize your visibility, post to the right groups and use the right taxonomy, such as hashtags, topics, and public @mentions.
8. Respect Privacy
Just because someone told you something in another channel, doesn’t give you the license to repost it automatically, unless it was posted in a public space like Twitter, which is indexable by Google. If you’d like to repost something, make sure that the original author has approved. Exercise the same caution when adding new participants to an existing email thread or a private group – make sure that existing participants feel comfortable that this new person will be able to see what’s already been written.
9. Remember the Golden Rule
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Treat your colleagues the way you’d want to be treated at work. Ask yourself, “Would I want to do a project with myself? What about grab lunch?” Don’t be the employee who publicly shames a co-worker to coerce him into action. Don’t go directly to someone’s boss instead of addressing that employee first. Never write something out of anger, spite or personal vendetta. Basically, don’t overstep your boundaries.
A great reminder from the folks at Capgemini: “In the same way that we moderate our conversations in the office, so we should apply similar moderation to our posts in Yammer…Be polite; try to be constructive; don’t be offensive.”
Back to you, reader! How do you observe etiquette at work, while still retaining your uniqueness? What kinds of guidelines does your company have for work-related social networks?