Should Company Policy Require Employees Use Full and Accurate Names when Posting?

Rob Enderle

Let's start out with a really uncomfortable subject because the concept of anonymity is core to the web. Somehow it gets mixed up with free speech and privacy. The first is a red herring and the second may increasingly be false as well.


Let's start with why I think every corporation should have as a firing offense posting under a false or misleading name.


Why Anonymity is Bad for your Company


Like all things, it is the few who spoil this for the many. If we could rely on good judgment the need to even have this conversation would be dramatically reduced. But people misact, we've all seen folks, under their own name, put stuff in e-mail that should, and often does, get them fired. They get angry at a boss, and executive, their review and say very inappropriate things. Or they get attracted to another employee or have a bad office "affair" and that too results in an email that can cause termination.


When people can hide behind a phony name they are, to use a term currently being overused by the U.S. Government, emboldened and the judgment they might use in e-mail is lost. Particularly problematic are behaviors like pedophilia or stock manipulation. The first can connect the company to behavior that is widely objectionable and the second can result is SEC investigations and possible criminal charges against corporate executives who's only fault was hiring the idiot who made the unfortunate post.


By disallowing with prejudice anonymous posting you put one more large barrier between the employee and any objectionable behavior and increases the likelihood they won't do it in the first place. You also make it easier to remove the threat because finding someone posting anyplace under a false name is vastly easier than tracing a false name back to the actually individual who used it. This allows for a rapid, blanket response to something like the HP Pretexting problem which may not actually catch the offender but scare them enough to stop the offensive behavior.


Anonymity Doesn't Equal Free Speech


Free Speech does not assure anonymity. In fact, all it does assure that people are protected if they stay within certain approved topic areas. These areas are very broad but don't include making terrorist threats, yelling fire in a crowded theater, inciting a riot, or an abuse. In fact, the use of anonymity in things like employee surveys actually increases the distrust surrounding management because it implies managers can't be trusted not to retaliate, and I've seen surveys that suggest the results of an anonymous employee survey can generally not be trusted because a large number of employees believe they well be retaliated against regardless.


Anonymity speaks directly to distrust and is primarily used where people don't trust the government not to take punitive action against them for what they say. In effect, it generally suggests "Free Speech" isn't working.


Anonymity and Privacy


Anonymity may increase privacy but with increasingly capable tools that can scan how a person writes and connect the writing back to that person this "truth" may not be true for long. If you are up on the Web you have created a record that may exist for decades and well into the time when these scanning tools will be much more capable. It isn't hard to imagine that people who have made comments that could get them fired this year may actually get fired five or six years from now when their writings come up as part of a security sweep. Certainly they could come up as part of a background check and prevent some future employment or an appointment to a government post.


Certainly as computers are brought in for service, taken over by legitimate and illegitimate scanning software, or picked up as part of an investigation the use of a false name can be discovered and traced back to all related activity even today.


You could certainly see how a new employee, hiding behind a false ID, could say some inappropriate things only to find those same things come back when, years later, they are CEO and under criminal investigation by the SEC.


Given the longevity of this data it would be wise to implement policies today that can protect the company at some future tomorrow.


Trust: The Protected Commodity


If people -- and I include customers and vendors here -- can always be assured that company employees are, when on the Web, who they say they are, then they are less likely to assume a negative post from a false name is actually coming from your firm. Over time, that should give the company a higher degree of trust, and even inside the firm, less likelihood that distrust will grow because of anonymous Web postings.


In the end, I believe that people should be accountable for what they say and not be encouraged to say things in private they wouldn't say in public, because, as we have often seen, what they say in private too often becomes public anyway. Rather than protecting anonymity we should protect the foundation for trust and assure that when someone does speak out appropriately they are protected rather than imply they can't be. In the end, I think that will lead to a more secure, more trustworthy, and more enjoyable working environment.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Feb 16, 2007 2:03 AM W^L+ W^L+  says:
I agree that posting anonymously *can* be a problem. It is not so much an issue in the areas where you've listed. A person who is knowingly committing a crime will not care whether a policy like this is in place, so it is a complete waste of time to have one. Posting anywhere, anonymous or not, during work time, without specific authorization, should be a firing offense.Likewise, posting in forums that are related to the company's business may or may not be offensive. I am well aware of some people who openly post on work-related topics (with the standard disclaimer). But what if your company is about to make a mistake, possibly do something illegal and your superiors refuse to change course? Since we know that the government will not enforce whistleblower protections, anonymous posting is probably the only safe way to reveal things before the employee would become unemployable by contamination. So in general, anonymous posting *should* be allowed and encouraged as long as it is (1) not illegal, immoral, or unethical and (2) not related to the company or its industry except for the cases of exposing possible misdeeds.As far as employee surveys go, the reason why employees don't trust anonymous surveys is the same reason they don't trust NON-anonymous surveys. They typically are not really anonymous, and honesty *does* result in retalliation. That's the reason we have secret ballots in this country. We know that as long as vote #19346 can be traced to Judy Jones, someone can threaten or bribe Ms. Jones for voting for a particular candidate.The other thing is this: anyone who does what you just said is just *asking* for a huge suit. Just as a landlord has very little legal control over what you do in your apartment as long as it doesn't violate various laws and regulations, neither does an employer have any legal control over what an employee does away from work on his or her own time, except as allowed by law. Infringing on this leads to more work for the legal department and less work for the operations division.Thus, if your employees want to call late-night talkradio programs and speculate on whether aliens have landed or post in 'Net forums as ALIENBELIEVER32, _you_as_an_employer_have_no_right_to_stop_them_ as long as they leave your company out of it. Reply
Feb 16, 2007 8:48 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Actually that isn’t necessarily true.  For instance if a person makes racist or sexist comments in public (which isn’t inherently illegal) they can, depending on the state, be terminated.  In most states there are conditions that allow you to terminate without cause and this would probably fall into that area.  What you are trying to limit is not free speech but inappropriate behavior.   If people know that simply concealing their identity can result in termination they are more likely to give extra thought to what they say and less likely to say something that could get them and their company in trouble.   A landlord is not an employer and the rights granted are vastly different, however, landlords can, with notice, (depending on the state and local ordinances) evict without cause if they give proper notice.   Employers can fire, without cause, in most states.   You can even be fired if you smoke on or off the job if that is spelled out as a requirement.   Here in the States Employment is At-Will and that gives the employer substantial latitude.  References: Reply

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