Ethical Scenario Commentary - Personal and professional boundaries in social media

The Maple Leaf
March 2016

January’s online ethics scenario – “Ethically, what would you do? Personal and professional boundaries in social media” focussed on an employee’s social media activity and generated a great deal of feedback from readers.

Jessica, a fairly new employee with the Defence Team, enthusiastically posted on personal social media sites an up-to-date account of her first out-of-town work assignment, which happened to be at an international meeting.

An ethical grey area

The majority agreed that there is a basic problem with Defence personnel posting political opinions on Facebook. As to other considerations, such as whether posting about a conference is ever or always a problem, views were more mixed. This issue is inherently a grey area, so it must be discussed somewhat differently than usual.

Work-related posts on personal websites represent an ethical grey area. On the one hand, the government has a legitimate interest in self-identified employees or members not disclosing work information that undermines the government in any way, whether via personal opinions or by drawing awkward attention to work-related facts that may be used for partisan purposes against that government. On the other hand, all Canadians have a right to free expression. These two sets of interests can collide.

Employees freely enter into an employment agreement with the administrative agent of the state. They thus agree to curb their rights to free expression in the context of their work in accordance with applicable legal principles and regulations. The positive role of a public servant or military member is either to provide discreet internal advice upwards or to loyally implement lawful political decisions of the duly-elected government, once arrived at. And it can be both. Unintended consequences of posting may undermine the very purpose of the professional group to which the person belongs.

However, the government does not insist as a universal requirement that its agents avoid revealing their job role on personal social media entirely, because this would be at odds with the basic right of free expression. Even if the government might believe that going so far would be the simplest way to minimize its own risks.

What and when to post

If Jessica posted about personal aspects of her work trip—for example, pictures of the town where the meeting took place—then in most circumstances there would be no basis for finding her at fault. There isn’t much context to work with here. It was pointed out by one reader that if the meeting was classified Jessica should have received some specific security guidance in advance. Security measures may exist not only to minimize public relations issues, but also for physical protection. (The rules around personal posts for service persons on operations are more demanding and intrusive for just this reason). By simply not posting in real time, but waiting until the trip was over, Jessica could have avoided creating a possible safety risk to conference attendees, who could have conceivably been targeted during the event. Of course, such risks are difficult to weigh, but there is no security risk at all in not posting live updates. And it could be argued that any usable work-related intelligence is unnecessary on a personal platform.

The difficulty with digital information is that it is different from off-the-record personal conversation. The potential audience is indefinitely large, and through links and copying, the information life cycle is unclear and potentially endless. No one would dispute Jessica’s right to speak with her friends, without a larger audience, about non-classified aspects of a trip, which is, again, in accordance with her basic right to free expression. This is assuming there was no extraordinary security context of which she should have been made well aware of her employer from the outset if it existed.

Existing policies

All of these remarks are made with reference to personal social media use. Government institutions have well-developed policies around official, work-based social media tools. These policies exist to ensure that risks of inadvertent outcomes—including undesirable impressions—are minimized. By using personal social media platforms to communicate about work, Jessica is blurring her personal and professional identities in a way that does not allow the institution to manage the risks well.

The fact that a relative asked Jessica about her political opinions on her Facebook page does not in itself prove that Jessica made a mistake by posting anything about work there. If her professional identity is evident in her personal social media identity—which as we already noted is permissible in general—someone could always ask for her political views, even though such a question would, of course, show a lack of understanding of her professional obligations. Jessica would do well to briefly and carefully explain in her public reply why she cannot answer the question in such a forum.

Are there any circumstances in which Jessica should hurriedly delete all her prior posts? If she has discovered herself guilty of a serious breach of security—in accordance with a belated risk assessment by the authorities— then she should, of course, follow whatever advice she is given. Otherwise, as one reader commented, hastily covering one’s tracks looks like an attempt to hide an error of judgment. And it also might entail hiding from the authorities, information they need in order to fully understand the risks.

Suggestions for future scenarios are always welcome by email.

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