Unfortunate honesty: Young executives and their digital footprint

The transparency of social media will lead to a generation of politicians with nowhere to hide. Will this also impact the C-suite, and what should HR do about it?

Unfortunate honesty: Young executives and their digital footprint

With social media and a movement towards a more profiled online space, anonymity online is disappearing. This is mixed news for future politicians, according to Australian political commentator Dan Cregan, who wrote for Sydney Morning Herald, saying soon a generation of political leaders will be “made honest and genuine merely by the volume of public data on their past.”

It stands to reason that a similar impact is likely to be had on young business leaders. Unless actively censoring themselves now, the next generation of executives are likely to have detailed information about them proliferating online, readily accessible in the future by their employees – and employers.

While for many, this information may prove no problem, for others it may paint an inaccurate picture, highlighting the lapses in judgment captured by Facebook photos and Twitter updates.

“A key thing we advise our clients, particularly those in leadership roles, is that authenticity is essential. Be real, and be yourself. Employees are very adept at seeing through ‘fake’ behavior, particularly Gen Y employees who grew up in an era where myths about prominent people were busted and reality is king,” Vicki Daniel, co-director of Change2020, told HRM.

Daniel argued that ‘authentic’ executives will have nothing to fear from their internet history or social media profiles becoming public, even if there is unflattering content to be found. “You may have had lapses in judgment at times, but so what, that’s human! The key is to acknowledge them, learn from them and move on.”

The necessity for HR to intervene in scandals that are revealed involving CEOs or other executives depends on the severity of the situation. Daniel advised that if there is clearly a break of the organization’s legal or ethical standards and values, HR should work together with the board and executive team to gauge the correct course of action. Public and investor relations teams may also need to be consulted.

However, if the situation is long-past or minor, then HR should remain uninvolved, and simply leave the matter up to the individual to handle.

“It is important to take into consideration the fact that many people don’t plan on becoming leaders, but are thrust into positions of leadership in which they excel,” Daniel stated. “Some of these people do this late in life … we just don’t think it is practical or desirable to clinically plan a carefully crafted persona or personal brand.”

Daniel feels that common sense of employees to distinguish between youthful exuberance and illegal or unethical behavior will mean most future leaders don’t have a lot to worry about, but they should still be cautious as to what they post online.

“Old golden rules always apply; don’t write anything on Twitter that you wouldn’t say face-to-face and don’t post photos on Facebook you wouldn’t want your grandma to see,” she said.


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