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Facebook is Not a 'Speak Easy' (Apparently)

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Whatever your views are on gay marriage and the rights and wrongs of getting married in a church or elsewhere, what happened to devote Christian Adrian Smith should be a stark warning to businesses and organisations, large and small.

Jessica Elgot has done a fantastic job of relaying the story elsewhere on the Huffington Post so I won't repeat much of her article here, but I will summarise the crux of the story
• A person using a social media website posts a personal opinion
• He is then asked (by followers of his profile) to expand on these views
• He returns to work to find himself reprimanded and demoted (which incurs a pay cut)

Adrian Smith did something which social media sites are encouraging us all to do - share our views about topics which (some people) quite frankly have no thoughts, opinion or idea about! However, it seems that Mr Smith did have some solid and heartfelt opinions - so why the fuss?

Trafford Housing Trust, Mr Smith's employers, felt that even though his views were expressed on a personal page, he had said something which could mean his views were taken to be representative of his employer.

What has happened to Adrian Smith should make us all consider the question - "when does your personal view and/or conduct become representative of your organisation?" UK police forces had to tackle this question many years ago when the actions, conduct, views and opinions of some serving officers could tarnish the good name of the police force as a whole.

Although 'acceptable behaviour' policies and protocols have been around for many years in organisations such as the police, we are now increasingly helping organisations to improve their policies to include 'social media' - and indeed something Trafford Housing Trust in this case are now looking to put in place. They stated that the case highlighted the challenges now faced by businesses, but I'd argue that this challenge has been around for a number of years. It's a shame that only now are organisations taking this matter more seriously.

Social media use has been on the increase over recent years and with Facebook reaching one billion users worldwide it seems almost ludicrous to expect us to trust people not to express their opinions on these sites.

So what next for this particular employer? Well, Trafford Housing Trust have already said they will 'review their documentation' to avoid a similar event arising. But to ensure this doesn't happen again they need to think about social media in more detail than simply 'reviewing their documentation'.

Training their employees and clearly outlining what is and is not acceptable is a must. Having a policy on a company intranet page or placed in a 'managers induction' slideshow just isn't enough. I have little sympathy for businesses that are not taking a pragmatic and honest look at social media and then designing an approach which is sensibly balanced to meet the needs of the organisation and the individual.

Organisations of all shapes and sizes must remember that they are employing 'people' and people have opinions, thoughts and ideas. We may not all necessarily agree with them, but as long as they are on the right side of the law then we should be willing for them to express them in whatever medium they deem appropriate. If these opinions go against the ethics and beliefs of the organisation in question, then they should be addressed openly, honestly and proportionally but the individual needs to understand what can land them in hot water.

Finally, it is interesting to note that Trafford Housing Trust said they only learnt that they were being taken to court when the story hit the press. Maybe if they worked more closely with social media sites, they would have heard about it and been able to respond prior to learning about it from traditional offline media!