Businesses routinely monitor employee online profiles to ensure they are presenting a professional image.
After all, employees are in many ways ambassadors for their employers. And there are numerous high-profile cases of questionable online activity being uncovered that has damaged the poster’s career prospects and even caused them to be fired.
As a result, employees have become increasingly cautious about their online interactions and are engaging in identity regulation – this is where a person works to curate and manage their online identity in order to present an image that is more acceptable and palatable, both in their professional and personal lives.
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Identity regulation might mean holding back from expressing honestly held opinions or even hiding their true identity, because people feel unable to present their authentic selves.
Our research also suggests that this kind of identity regulation, and its negative impact, happens disproportionately to women.
It can prove tremendously stressful, potentially impacting productivity and wellbeing at work.
There is a wealth of research that suggests that having the confidence to be oneself leads to more engagement at work and better problem solving too.
So, it is important for organisations to look beyond punitive and restrictive attitudes to employees’ social media use.
Instead, employers should focus on helping colleagues avoid inauthentic identities while maintaining a positive corporate image.
There are several steps organisations can take to help all employees manage their online presence more effectively.
Step 1 – Authentic advice
Many organisations already share guidance on how employees should conduct themselves online, but too often the focus is on avoiding reputational damage.
This should go a step further, to coaching employees on how to manage their social media interactions and create a professional yet authentic online identity.
It is important this advice takes an enabling tone, rather than a punitive one.
Organisations can also nominate social media mentors – colleagues who have successfully maintained a social media presence – to share best practice.
Regular workshops can also be a good idea for troubleshooting tricky topics, like how to deal with trolls.
Step 2 – Social media spring clean
We have all said things in the past that we regret, but statements made on social media have a bad habit of sticking around.
Our outlook on life changes over time and so do our opinions.
As such, there may be things employees have said on social media in the past that they wouldn’t say today, because they don’t reflect who they are.
So, as well as managing their current online engagement, colleagues should also conduct regular clean-ups to moderate, edit or delete historical content that may be inappropriate.
Employers should provide technical support or advice sessions to help them navigate the process across different platforms to help employees manage their profiles better.
Step 3 – Separating social from the world of work
Social media invariably leads to the blurring of personal and professional lives.
This may result in grey areas between friendship and professional relationships which could be problematic, and managers should be provided training in managing these conflicts.
At the same time, managers who are privy to employees’ social media activities should receive more focussed unconscious bias training, so that social media interactions do not influence their decision making at work, such as during appraisals.
Step 4 – Encourage experimentation
Everyone is an individual and there is no such thing as normal.
Employers should give employees the freedom to experiment with their authentic selves, rather than trying to make them fit into an idealised corporate identity.
Pigeonholing people in this way denies them the opportunity to express themselves freely.
Celebrating diverse identities may mean hearing opinions that do not chime with your own.
Organisations can encourage the use of internal social media platforms to normalise self-expression and create safe spaces where employees can openly be themselves.
Another idea is to create a pool of ‘critical friends’, who can act as a sounding board for employees before they post opinions online.
Since the pandemic, even more of our personal and professional lives have shifted online.
With the development of even more immersive online experiences like the metaverse, those organisations with more forward-thinking social media policies will be well-placed to attract and retain more engaged and authentic employees.
Aparna Gonibeed is a senior lecturer in people and performance and member of the Decent Work and Productivity Institute (DWP) at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.
Syed Imran Saqib is a lecturer in human resource management and employment studies at Alliance Manchester Business School, and a member of the Work and Equalities Institute (WEI)/