What happens if you believe in the power of social media but the rest of your company does not? Do you take matters into your own hands and start interacting with customers online? Or do you respect the wishes of your bosses and keep your head down by doing the job you were hired to do?
Chris Brogan, a good guy and a smart social media evangelist, blogged about a Fortune 500 company employee named “Bob” who faced just that dilemma. This employee had begun participating in an online forum where he was discussing products as a representative of his company with some of their customers. Another manager got wind of what he was up to and was deeply concerned — and he told Bob’s supervisor as much.
“My boss at this point told me to stop what I was doing and to not further engage with them anymore,” Bob told Chris. That seems pretty cut and dried, right? Not to Bob, apparently. Since he disagreed with his manager’s instruction, he chose to simply disregard it.
Chris picks up the story: “What comes next is that Bob, being raised to be helpful, kept engaging with the customer base. He answered some questions, got into some conversations, and brought the company’s story to these people.”
In other words, Bob chose to willfully and flagrantly disregard his employer’s instruction. Bob’s reaction was not one of resigned acceptance. Rather, it was outrage. He justifies his action to Chris this way: “this manager never ever gave a valid reason why we should not other than saying it was a slippery slope.”
The manager may not have provided a “valid reason” (apparently Bob is the sole arbiter of what is valid), but it certainly was a “valid” order and that’s enough. It was not illegal, unethical, or immoral. One might argue that it is unwise if one believes in the power of social media to bolster customer interactions, but we don’t have nearly enough information from Chris Brogan’s blog post to conclude that.
Although Chris does not emphatically argue on Bob’s behalf in his post, it seems evident to me that he is sympathetic to the employee’s plight. I am not. Loose cannons get companies into trouble, no matter how good their intentions may be. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of the individuals who have responded in the comments to Chris’ post suggest that Bob was very much in the right.
That’s the sort of Social Media Kool Aid thinking that undermines the arguments many of us make to companies to get more involved. One of the fears that executives have is that employees will spin out of control and take matters into their own hands rather than bolstering the company’s message. Hearing the story of Bob will make them less — not more — likely to begin to participate.
There are many legitimate reasons why a company may not wish to participate in social media and online forums. Many industries have burdensome legal and regulatory requirements that come into play. For instance, if Bob worked at a pharmaceutical company, he might be obligated to report any adverse side effects he hears about in an online discussion to the FDA. If he is not well-versed in these rules, however, he could get the company into costly hot water. Or perhaps Bob lets slip information about upcoming product releases, something that could put the company in a bind with the SEC with regard to disclosure laws.
But even if you set aside the legal burdens, there may be legitimate business concerns, especially for a large Fortune 500 company. There is no indication from Bob’s communication with Chris that he has any direct ability to impact the product the company releases to its customers. If customers are providing feedback and being engaged by Bob, they may have the impression that he is in a position to help. It seems based on the information provided that he does not even have the juice to convince his bosses to listen to him, let alone shape the product. Distorting customer expectations, no matter how well-intentioned, could prove costly for the firm over the long run.
Chris Brogan concludes his post by stating that there is no moral to this story. With all due respect, that’s simply not true. The moral to the story should be quite clear to all. Employees do not have the right to ignore corporate policies they disagree with. It’s fine to disagree, make your case, or ask for an explanation. But the choice is clear: follow legitimate orders or resign.