Five ways companies use social media and look like jerks

Five ways companies use social media and look like jerks

Summary: Let's take a look at five ways companies use social media and end up making themselves look like complete and utter fools.


There are two main aspects to every business. The first is the essence of what the business does, the products it makes, the services it performs, the processes necessary to make those things happen. The other aspect is, well, everything else -- everything from employment policies to marketing to company culture to social media.

Many businesses are quite good at their core competencies, but seem to lose their way on the everything-else part. Sometimes it's because the everything-else isn't, by definition, their core competency. Sometimes, it's because the leaders of the company have let themselves be led astray by over-enthusiastic legal teams, or perfectly-dressed business school graduates.

Either way, there comes a time when many businesses do things to let themselves look just plain bad. Obviously, the things-to-do-to-look-like-a-jerk scope of opportunity is huge, but let's narrow it down to something simple, like social media.

Let's take a look at five ways companies use social media and end up making themselves look like complete and utter fools:

1. Firing all 1,300 of your employees over email

While email isn't Facebook or Twitter, email was pretty much social networking before social networking was "cool." I'm kicking off this list of mistakes because it's the one that actually caused me to laugh out loud -- it was that dumb.

Hat's off to fellow ZDNet columnist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for pointing this one out. Apparently, Aviva, the sixth largest insurance company in the world, accidentally fired all 1,300 employees in its investment unit via email. Instead of sending a pink-slip email to one employee, Bloomberg reports a "clerical error" resulted in an email informing everyone to "turn over company property as they left the building".

So where's the jerk move here? It's not that they wound up in news reports the world over. The jerk move was firing someone over email. And it's not a jerk move because it could wind up in news reports all over the world, it's a jerk move because it's a jerk move.

2. Demanding Facebook passwords of your employees

We've been talking about this one a lot. On March 12, I wrote When it comes to demanding Facebook passwords, there needs to be a law protecting consumers. I sent a link to this article to a bunch of Congress-critters I know, currently serving in Washington.

Then, on March 23, Senator vows to stop employers asking for your Facebook password and then on March 25, US senators: Investigate employers asking for Facebook passwords. Coincidence? Probably.

Not that it worked, because on March 28, our illustrious Congress (and I blame both Dems and GOP) took the incredibly short-sighted move and voted down the bill to stop employers asking for Facebook passwords. Sigh.

So, beyond everything Congress tends to do, where's the jerk move? The jerk move is this: if you ask employees for their Facebook password, it will come back to haunt you. There will be lawsuits.

After all, one of your less self-controlled employees might get ahold of the passwords you demanded and choose to post as if they were another employee. Hilarity would not ensue. Worse, Facebook now has email. Many people are using their Facebook email account as their primary email password reset account for -- wait for it -- things like bank accounts.

Do you really want the liability of having access to your employees' bank accounts -- and the liability of what happens when some teeny-bopper in your employ decides to go shopping for new shoes using the access you've accidentally granted because you were stupid enough to insist the Facebook password was on an employment application which was stored in an unlocked file cabinet with all the others?

Bottom line, not only is asking for Facebook passwords a jerk move, it's a huge liability exposure.

3. Not letting employees post their job status on LinkedIn

So here's one that was new to me, but apparently, it's a "thing". Some companies have developed these "social network policies" and have started to go off the reservation with their demands. Now, to be clear, it's a smart strategy to have an employee policy because there will always be that one employee who does something incomprehensibly dumb and then claims he wasn't told it was unacceptable.

Downside of employee policies: whatever incomprehensibly dumb move comes from that one employee won't be covered in the policy guide. But that's what Word is for. Edit it, and reissue it, having learned just one more way the train can go off the rails.

Anyway, back to LinkedIn. Some companies are now demanding employees practice good taste on social networks. But they don't call it that. They insist that employees post disclaimers or avoid posting anything that shows their affiliation with their workplace.

This, from a legal point of view, is derived from the concept of apparent authority, where messaging from an employee in certain circumstances can be considered a formal statement by the company.

There is some complexity here, which I won't go into. Suffice to say that anyone in your organization who might be confused with having apparent authority in a discovery case should be properly trained on how to represent themselves online.

This brings us back to LinkedIn, where some employers are insisting their employees not post their employment status, while other employers are insisting their employees post opinion disclaimers.

Next: More stupidity »

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This, too, is not a simple issue, because there have been cases where employees have leaked future product plans on their LinkedIn profiles. But to insist that employees not list their term of employment at all? That's a jerk move.

Why is this a jerk move? Because LinkedIn is becoming not only the de facto resume of record, but it's often how we all learn more about other people and their professional backgrounds. If an employee were to leave off their time at your company, that would be a gap in their resume. Further, it'd be just strange.

Quality prospective employees, seeing that there were very few LinkedIn profiles mentioning your company or discovering that you didn't allow employees to post their employment with you (and you're not the CIA), might just choose to go work somewhere else -- leaving you with only those prospective employees who don't care about how their employment history looks.

Also, let's be clear. LinkedIn is not like Facebook and it's not even like Twitter. Most of-sound-mind people aren't going to post pictures of their drunken partying in their resume. LinkedIn is a professional resource, and just about everyone has figured that out. Except, maybe, a few jerk employers.

In other words, in return for a jerk move, you'll get the lower quality employees. Hey, maybe you deserve each other.

4. Deleting comments and questions from your Facebook page

This is just so special. Many companies have figured out they can use Facebook for marketing, like, you know, an ad. So they put up a Facebook page, leave space for comments and questions, and then -- when they actually get comments and questions -- either don't answer them or delete them.

Yep, it happens more often than you'd think and companies as varied as Radio Shack and Victoria's Secret are guilty. Hmm... gives "robot teddy" a whole new meaning, doesn't it? But I digress.

Our own fabulous Friending Facebook super-friend Emil Protalinski reports that Retailers don’t answer, delete Facebook customer questions.

So where's the jerk move here? These newfangled social media dooooodads are meant to be two-way. That means that you're supposed to use these tools to talk to your customers, use them as an additional customer support and even market research tool. They're not just new ad formats.

So, if you put up a Facebook page and enable customers to post comments and questions, monitor them. If a customer asks a question, answer it.

While we're at it, don't go deleting comments. If a customer says your company sucks, you shouldn't delete it. In fact, if a lot of customers say your company sucks, maybe you should take that to heart and try to suck less.

The only time it's acceptable to delete comments is when they're not acceptable (racist, abusive, profane, etc). Otherwise, leave them the frak alone.

5. Creating involvement devices and not expecting involvement

Oh, poor McDonalds. They really tried.

Apparently, they had this campaign where they promoted the use of the #McStories hashtag, with the hopes that people would tell heartwarming stories of McDonalds experiences. Or something. I guess.

We can't exactly repeat what customers said using the #McStories hashtag, but let's just say most of it wasn't about how warm and tasty their fries are. Instead, customers spoke their minds -- and it wasn't pretty.

So what's the jerk move here? What did McDonalds do wrong? Actually, nothing unless you count being a bit naive. They didn't deny the hashtag had gone bad, and they tried to involve their customers. The jerk move this time was with customers who went above and beyond complaints, and moved into a place where some consumers said such nasty things (things not safe for work or home) that dialog couldn't happen.

Sometimes, companies want to reach out to their customers, even want to hear the bad things they have to say, and simply get spanked back so hard, they don't try it again.

So, consumers, if you want your vendors and brands to listen to you, you have to be civil back. When we say social media is a two-way street, that applies to both brands and consumers.

Civility is not obsolete, even if you have to keep it to less than 140 characters per statement.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Collaboration


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • The reason congress decided not to ban employers from requesting facebook

    logon information from prospective employees is because they realized if they banned all employers from doing it, they would also be banning federal agencies from requiring that information.
    • They should be banned....

      Nothing so different about federal agencies being banned from that information. They should be. Unless they have a proper subpoena.
      Sceptical Observer
      • They should?

        let's jump to the most obvious non subpoena reason: can you say "security clearance," few are the federal jobs that do not require one.
    • In a free society????

      Also, there are members of Congress who believe that, in a free society, employers have the right to request anything they want of an employee, just as an employee has the right to refuse that request. These members of Congress do not think that it is the job of the federal government to interfere with the employer-employee relationship.

      BTW, I do not necessarily share that opinion.
      sissy sue
      • Gov't has no right...

        Gov't has no interfere in the employer/employee relationship. Period. But they do.
        Gov't tells business who they can hire and fire and what to pay and what people can say and when they can miss work and ya dee da de daa. This comes at great cost and is driven by people who want gov't to be their mommy and take care of their every need.
      • Gov't has every right....

        Without gov't interfering in the employer / employee relationship... we would have child labor, unpaid overtime, and just overall crappy / unsafe working conditions.
        Bruce Banter
      • Employees have rights...

        @ marybrown999

        When employers abridge employees' rights, who or what protects them? Whether you realize it or not, you're post is one short step away from endorsing slavery.

        Like any relationship, that between employee and employer has its potential for abuse. All kinds of relationships have protections codified and, if necessary, mediated by a government, i.e., business vs. consumer, spouse vs. spouse, citizen vs. citizen, state vs. state etc.

        Many businesses carry on interstate commerce. And that's what gives the federal government the constitutional right to regulate employer-employee relationships.
  • A Simple fix for the Internet's Dark Side.

    No more anonymous Screen Names! Make all of us use our real names so cowards can't hide behind a wall and throw pooh. Create a digital Oops Jar (FCC) where every time someone uses a screen name instead of their God given name they get hit with a quarter penalty. Trust me it wouldn't be long till the National Debt was paid off .25 cents at a time. I'm Ross Ballard (
    • Your simple fix

      is not so simple. People post under pseudonyms for a variety of reasons - I post under this one because my previous account here was banned due to some fanboi who kept flagging my posts as spam because he didn't agree with what I said and was not man enough to have an actual adult discussion about it. Others do so because they were bullied or stalked.

      Another reason not to go with one's real name - how many people are named "John Smith" for example...
    • This is another example of a poor education

      I don't know if you've read the constitution and bill of rights, but the one thing this is for sure is that you do not understand either of those documents. I have my doubts that you understand human nature either.

      God gives no one names. Usually, the child's parents do.
    • God given name?

      My dad is pretty mighty but he's no God.
      And he had some input from my mom and she's not God either.
      What name I use on the internet might be my parent given name, or it may be the name I have earned. Most names were earned at one time or another, but most people using them know nothing about what they mean.
      But at the same time there are reasons for allowing anonymous posting and access to the internet, freedom of expression, freedom of choice.
      By taking away other peoples freedom you take away your own. I know that, my God knows that, so does my dad.
  • So-So Media

    I haven't jumped into the new social media, especially Facebook due to the privacy settings that keep changing. The difference between Facebook and LinkedIn is one is very informal and the otherone is, as the author says, an online resume and networking resource.
  • So, WHY the -3 rating????

    Seems too many readers still want to subscribe to the idea that they can do things without being identified.... THAT's yet another jerky idea - refusing to be responsible at all levels for your actions....
    Of course the article wouldn't have any impact if only non-jerks read it would it?
    Oh, and I submit that just about every topic herein can also be applied in some sense to non-corporate entities making big jerks of themselves via social media - the difference is how widely it may get noticed ... heh!
    Some notable TV and news online outlets have moved to asking users who want to comment to "login using (whatever - facebook, twitter, Yahoo, gmail, etc.)" and just don't seem to recognize the slippery slope of that. I personally noted one major outlet in Houston will now take & publish comments ONLY from facebook users - thereby eliminating many of the more sane and helpful suggestions that used to be published. Even the station management can't seem to recognize how their "comments" have dragged their entire image downhill by only allowing the mostly inane comments from fb'ers who have little useful contribution.
    The world seems to be full of idiots at high levels!
    • Cyberstalking anyone?

      Yeah some people use pseudonyms because they've been victims of cyberstalking or cyberbullying. It unfortunately does happen.

      One thing I do find incredibly hypocritical of your post is that YOU posted it under what appears to be a pseudonym - unless your name is William Nott. My own posting under a pseudonym is due to some fanboi that continually flagged my posts as spam because he did not agree with what I said and my account was banned... a form of cyberstalking or cyberbullying perhaps?
  • Umm ...

    "[i]No more anonymous Screen Names![/i]"

    I take it that you've never heard of Cyber-Stalking?
  • More stupidity

    My employer has a Facebook page but blocks Facebook access...
    • Not uncommon...

      This often happens because of pressure from a marketing or advertising team that believes all the Social Media garbage being pushed by the local advertising companies, so they get a Facebook page. But their IT department understands that "Social" anything doesn't belong in the workplace. I work in such a place, and I am the one primarily responsible for the policy that blocks Facebook (and social media in general) access from company computers. I have documented proof that opening up access to the social media sites results in a huge increase in virus and spyware problems on the respective computers. Yes, our antivirus catches 99.9% of them, but why take any unecessary risks for something that is arguably not work related.
  • Aside from the jerk moves you listed

    and don't get me wrong I agree with all of them, one part in particular struck me as incredibly stupid on the part of users: [i]"Worse, Facebook now has email. Many people are using their Facebook email account as their primary email password reset account for ??? wait for it ??? things like bank accounts."[/i] I personally do not use FB email anyhow and most definitely NOT for something as important as bank info reset.
    • Wise move

      Just wish that more people were as wise as you and many of the people who post here (Even the people who I may not always agree with.)
      We are the people who know enough to get here and other places with good information. But we are not a cross section of facebook users. Our job has to be to educate our friends, family and neighbours. It's not easy and it never ends but if we don't do it no-one will.
  • Why

    What's the purpose of having an employee's facebook password? To see their info? Not needed for that, just friend them.