The Ethical Challenges of Social Media

by Dr. D. Robert Okopny

Advancements in technology over the past 30 years have completely revolutionized the way we interact with one another and conduct business. My first post-MBA position as a financial analyst in a Fortune 10 company included: manual spreadsheets, a Friden mechanized calculator and word processing performed by a secretary on an electric typewriter. Cut and paste was truly that: a misspelled word was physically cut out with an Exacto knife with the correction taped back into place.

Now, everyone has a computer, tablet and smartphone with wireless connectivity. The Internet has given us information to assist in making decisions about all aspects of our lives. We can monitor our health by obtaining expert advice from (hopefully) “reliable” sources, develop exercise programs and learn the most advanced opinions on raising healthy children. We are also able to gather information quicker to make more efficient decisions when it comes to travel arrangements, financial and retirement planning, everyday purchases and developing and maintaining professional and social contacts.

In addition to information gathering, we can now interact instantly from anywhere in the world for professional and personal purposes. We have access to many choices for E-mail, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other means. USA Today recently announced Facebook’s value at $75 billion to $100 billion in an IPO with 845 million users and 100 billion friends — illustrating that social media is here to stay.

The Integration of Technology

Technologies influence our individual lives and have rapidly affected professional business standards as well. Businesses now rely more heavily on technology both to provide information to and solicit information from stakeholders. But, when given the power of information, not everyone uses it with optimal integrity.

The permanency and immediacy of online interactions — specifically as it relates to social media — can cause serious harm if used incorrectly. For example, what if an official post is sent without adequate editing? It cannot be retracted. The sender’s and/or receiver’s personal and organizational reputation can be negatively tarnished.

Corporate executives, government officials, athletes, celebrities and political candidates have found out the hard way that it takes both common sense and ethical considerations to avoid reputational risks when using social media.

Social Media Responsibilities

Unfortunately, we’ve not yet reached an era where social media sites share ethical responsibility for public content. Therefore, organizations and individuals should develop their own ethical policies and processes for handling social media internally.

Many recent lapses have occurred and are occurring daily. For example, a frustrated Tweet about traffic sent on the wrong site caused an employee to be fired and his company’s consulting contract to be terminated.

In combating this misusage, individuals need proper education and training, much in the same way as ethics, sexual harassment, fraud and internal control training are conducted — this should include the penalties for specific violations. In addition, organizations must monitor the remarks of employees as well as those of their stakeholders. Customer or other stakeholder complaints may add value by identifying product and process issues to be addressed.

Preparing for the Future

The power of social media is constantly emerging on a global basis, which has even provided the impetus for government changes in some parts of the world. However, we all have a duty to use social media in an honorable manner and take responsibility for our actions.

The Institute of Management Accountants’ (IMA) Ethical Principles — honesty, fairness, objectivity and responsibility — are a good foundation to guide our actions.

Used in the right way, social media can provide many professional and personal benefits, including maintaining the interconnectivity of family members, classmates, colleagues, alumni and friends. However, keep in mind that “less is more” when disclosing information about yourself. It may only take one sitting through a FBI presentation on cybercrime to raise awareness. Also, ensure that your organization has adequate policies in place to guide the use of social media and that the staff is properly trained. Identity theft, phishing, hacking and other privacy concerns can stop you or your business in its tracks.

Source: businessfinancemag


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