How much information is too much on the Web? What kind of information sharing is smart? And what is unprofessional? A month ago, I sat on a panel at Inc.'s Grow Your Company conference in Orlando, along with T3 founder Gay Gaddis, who puts together digital-marketing campaigns for large companies, and Dr. Christos Cotsakos, founder of Pennington Ventures and the former CEO of E-Trade. Both Cotsakos and Gaddis agreed that business owners should encourage their employees to go online and interact, on behalf of the overall enterprise, with colleagues, partners, and even customers. But Gaddis also offered a cautionary tale. Not long ago, Gaddis told the audience, one of her employees came to her and said, "I've been friended on Facebook by one of our clients. What should I do?"
Gaddis told the staffer that it was fine to accept the client's friendship, and so she did.
Some time later, workers at T3 were rushing to complete a campaign for that client. Late at night the week before the campaign was due, a few of Gaddis's employees posted on Facebook that they were somewhat swamped and staying late at work.
The following Monday, Gaddis got a call from the client. "What's going on over there?" he asked. "I saw on Facebook that your team was there over the weekend."
Gaddis explained to the client that it was not uncommon for the team to work late in the final stages of a campaign. She then called the team together and told them that the client had called. She didn't chastise them for their indiscreet status updates per se, but it was clear that she was calling on them to be more circumspect when it came to using social media.
Fast forward to this week. I was here at Inc. late on Wednesday night editing a column and I ordered Chinese food with a few staffers. At the end of our meal, we opened some fortune cookies. Last month, the same thing had occurred, and I twittered a few of the fortunes that seemed somewhat relevant to our subject matter. A few of my tweets prompted retweets from our followers, so I decided to repeat the exercise this week. Without much thought, I twittered four new fortunes, including this one: "Act boldly and unseen forces will come to your aid."
Later that night, it was my turn to get an e-mail. The subject line read, "Chinese for dinner?" and the body of the message, from a colleague, read, "So from 8:30-8:33 I got 4 tweets from Inc. with (what I assume to be) the fortunes from folks' fortune cookies. Really? Say it aint so."
Chastened, I realized I had just committed roughly the same faux pas as the employee at the digital marketing agency who had unnerved a client by complaining about a heavy workload.
With more people blending personal and business relationships online, and more companies reaching out to customers through social networks (see this month's cover story on Zappos's strategy), it feels to me that the definition of what's considered "professional" is changing. Is there a way to allow and even encourage employees to reveal more about themselves through sites such as Twitter and Facebook, while also upholding standards of professionalism and basic office etiquette? Or is a let-it-all-hang-out work culture all but irrevocable? Have you had a similar social-networking mishap at your company? If so, how did you handle it?