Sunday, March 18, 2012

When Children Attack In The Workplace: A Tribal Social Media Study

I started thinking about ethical behavior in the workplace when I read the article: “Ethics and Social Media in the Workplace: Where Should You Draw The Line?” posted on the American Express OpenForum submitted by Mashable.

Ethics is directly related to one’s own perception. What is right to me, may be wrong to you, and in between is the truth. So ethics in the workplace has grown from the little white lie that lives in the gray area, to being exposed as a cankerous sore in reality. Our surroundings, the people we associate with shape our ethical behavior. The crowd mentality is alive and living in the workplace just waiting for more members to join. On any given day in my office there are cliques of ethical tribes, some exist in a transparent bubble, practicing ethical behavior for all to see. Others exist in the gray area that says, “it depends on the situation” whether or not my behavior is ethical; because ethics in the gray area are based upon the perception of the tribe. If the tribal influence shifts, then individual ethical behavior will shift according to the direction of the tribal movement.

For example, recently a friend expressed displeasure at the company performing an at-will behavior that impacted many employees negatively. The company, my friend states, did not inform employees in an official communication their hours would be cut, which my friend states left her feeling “like she didn’t matter” to the company. At that point, I observed my friend consulting with various members of the tribe in the workplace, on the telephone and by text message, asking for their opinions. Each one of the tribe members shared the same perspective relating to the issue, that it was “wrong” for the company to behave in this manner. My assumption to all of this ‘asking’ was that each person my asked shared the same opinion as she did; no one differed offering an alternative perception. All the tribe members agreed that the ‘company’ just doesn’t care about their employees because if they did, the ‘company’ would at least send an email or memo about the abrupt change. According to my friend, this abrupt change impacted hourly employees’ bi-weekly paycheck and no management employees were impacted.

The gathering of the tribe, asking one another if they were affected, begins to resemble an angry mob. Albeit, a mob that understands in this crunched economy, that even though hours were cut, and paychecks affected, the tribe is afraid to express their feelings to management out of fear of retaliation in the form of harassment and intimidation or more extreme, job loss. So the tribe begins to do a little less, performing at less than optimal levels, because of the simmering anger that exists beneath the surface of employee behavior. Outwardly, the tribe looks happy, however, if the company were to engage in any sort of feedback session with tribe members, it would be discovered looks can be deceiving.

Because the tribe members feel powerless at work, social media outlets give tribe members power. Here they can say what they want, at all hours of the day or night, and be heard by great numbers of people. You’ve heard the old saying, ‘good news travels fast, but bad news travels faster.’ Tribe members using social media outlets can share their thoughts and feelings about this situation and similar behaviors by the company that the tribe perceives unethical behavior. The company ignores tribal behavior in the beginning because the company may not feel they owe employees an explanation to saving money. That is, until the next quarterly report reveals less revenue earned year to date over last year’s. The company will then behave like the angry parent when the child disobeys, using discipline in the form of micro-managing employees who perform less than stellar job duties. Like children, the tribe feels wronged and will respond, because one action deserves a reaction. Without warning, the tribe feels attacked, and begins to internalize the behavior of the company toward the tribe. Tribal members’ absenteeism rates increase, mistakes are made by the tribe on critical tasks. The beginning behavior by the company resembles the pebble thrown in the water having a ripple effect that threatens to impact annual revenues and earnings.

This is a real story, going on now at a Fortune 500 company, is a story of ethics. My belief is that ethics begins at the head and travels to the foot. If employees are treated with respect, job performance will increase because the employees are happy and more willing to support the company, even defend the company in any ethical battle. However, when employees are unhappy, feel unappreciated, and have no outlet for their anger, then the tribe mentality takes over, and in an era of multiple social media outlets, the company may become vulnerable to competitors.
Jay Shepherd, author of the book Firing at Will: A Manager’s Guide, sums up unethical behavior with a sentence.“It’s like pornography: You know it when you see it. It’s as simple as knowing the right thing to do, then doing the wrong thing.”

Both sides, the company and employees are doing the wrong thing. However, in this case, the company (the leader, the head) began the unethical behavior, employees are simply acting out using social media to share their pain and hurt with all that will read it.