Study: Social networkers have more ethics problems at work

It’s hard to tell whether it’s a case of correlation or causation, but according to a new study published this week, employees who are super active on social networking sites have a very different idea of what is appropriate workplace behavior than other workers.
For starters, active social networkers — defined in the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, a study published this week by the nonprofit Ethics Resource Center (ERC) as people who spend more than 30 percent of the workday participating on social networking sites — are much more likely to view their current jobs as temporary. 72 percent of active social networkers polled said they plan to change employers within the next five years, compared to 39 percent of non-active social networkers.

From the 2011 NBES (click to enlarge)

That feeling of transience may lead to such workers feeling like it’s no big deal to swipe a few things from the office supply cabinet: 46 percent of active social networkers said they thought it was acceptable to take a copy of work software home and use it on their personal computer, while just seven percent of non-active social networkers said the same.

Sharing the office’s secrets — good and bad

Not surprisingly, active social networkers are also more likely to be loose-lipped online about what goes on at work. 42 percent of active social networkers said they felt it was acceptable to blog or tweet negatively about their company or their coworkers, while just six percent of non-active social networkers saw such behavior as OK. But it’s not all bad news — a majority of active social networkers (56 percent) said they would also be likely to post about good things their coworkers did.
Another serious finding from the survey is that active social networkers were much more likely than other workers to witness ethical violations while on the job, and were also more likely to have received negative retaliation for reporting such trangressions. It’s hard to determine whether this is due to social networking, or just because of the people involved: Active social networkers account for just 11 percent of all workers who engage with social media, and are primarily males in managerial roles between the ages of 18 to 44, the ERC said.

From the 2011 NBES (click to enlarge)

What it means for big businesses

It’s all very interesting data, especially since it comes from such a reputable source: The ERC has been around for 90 years, and the headline sponsors of the NBES include Walmart(s WMT), Northrop Grumman(s NOC), BP(s BP) and Altria(s MO). The ERC seems to take the data gleaned about social networking very seriously, writing in the report that this new environment could pose serious problems for companies:

“One of the key findings of NBES 2011 was the unique–and often troubling–experiences of active social networkers. Active social networkers observe misconduct at a higher rate and are more likely to experience retaliation if they choose to report…
Regardless of their employer’s policy on social networking on the job, employees are expressing a blurring of the lines between personal and professional relationships, and that could pose new risks to companies. Similarly, as employees become more active on social networks, the more they express a tolerant view of questionable behaviors that could pose business risks.”

For many of us, social networking feels like it’s been around forever. But for businesses — especially larger, older ones, like those that sponsor the NBES — this is a brand new thing to contend with. And the people who are heavy users of social networks may just be more savvy than their unplugged counterparts. In this economy, for example, it might just be realistic for people to view their jobs as likely to change in the next few years — not evidence of disloyalty. One thing looks certain: With social networking showing no signs of going away, big companies will have to find a way to deal with the ethical changes that come along with it.