Behaving Badly Online? HR-and Others-May Be Watching.

I’m preparing a presentation for a group of HR professionals on social media, its uses and abuses, and I recently came across an online interaction that makes a great case for what *not* to do online.

I frequent online forums quite regularly to get feedback, to find sources and to engage in conversations. And, I’m admit it, sometimes I just “lurk.” Recently I was gratified to be “just a lurker” in one particular forum on LinkedIn. The vitriole and, IMO, outrageous behavior by one participant who appeared (based only on his photo/profile) to be a “respectful businessman” was absolutely shocking, I thought.

It all started with a seemingly innocuous posting about seven months ago:

“What’s the very modern definition of ‘a strategy’?”  It caught my interest because, at the time I came upon the forum, I was doing research for a book on strategic planning and there were numerous responses to this question.

About three months into the conversation, the person I’ll call “angry man” emerged and posted a strongly, but professionally worded, opinion. Then, about a month later, after the conversation continued, but nobody responded to or referenced his comment, he chimed in again with this: “Goddamn claptrap! You have got to be kidding!”

Then somebody had the bad fortune to respond: “Well (name) – if you object to my definition so much, feel free to add your own. ” And, the discussion ensued with the “angry guy” chiming in every other post, most aimed directly at this individual, with such professional comments as:

“WOW! It is astounding! Guys like you don’t even get that you don’t get it! Christ, this is amazing!”

“I find it remarkable (and not in a good way!) how people can talk around an issue! Like I said ti (sic) (name) up there, shut your mouth and think for a Goddamn minute!”

Then a couple of forum posters chimed in to suggest that the “angry guy’s” approach and demeanor was inappropriate, to which he responded:

“Why so sensitive? Feeling challenged, threatened? You two clowns totally miss the point!”

And his vitriole continued with such gems as:

“YOU ARE PATHETIC! Shut your mouth, open your ears and your eyes and think, use your GODDAMN brain! Stop this self-satisfying, self-perpetuating, self-justifying, self-interested circle-jerk!”

“Oh (name), you are friggin’ hilarious! Totally clueless, but friggin’ hilarious!”

Then, the person who started the conversation chimed in (about six months later):

” Having initiated this discussion, I feel some obligation to keep it on-topic…I’m sure there are rules that accompany group membership about courtesy and respect. Let’s play in that sandpit.”

Did this end it? Not immediately. “Angry guy” made a few more postings before ultimately either giving up or being banned from the site.

The whole thing has me just awestruck, actually. While I’m sure there’s lots of nasty stuff online, I tend to think that “birds of a feather flock together.” Since most of the forums I’m involved in are business forums, I expect business behavior and respectful, albeit sometimes direct, conversations. In fact, I enjoy a good, heated debate. But, there’s obviously a line. And, I would think that any business professional would be cautious about crossing the line in consideration of the impact it can have on his/her reputation. Apparently, I’m wrong.

Out of curiosity I checked “angry man’s” profile and found that he’s apparently a *past* City Planner from a very large U.S. city. Hmmm, wonder why it’s a *past* position? I can only imagine the nature of the city planning meetings he was involved in… Currently it doesn’t appear he’s doing much of anything but belittling other businesspeople online, a failsafe way to land a great new position, I’m sure.

Assuming he used his real name in these posts, and assuming he’s still looking for a job, he might be interested to know that just entering his name in various search engines will tell me a lot about his personality, ability to interact effectively with others and overall personal style. What kind of impact do you think that will have on his job search? I don’t predict a bright future for “angry man” who is not, by the way (judging by his photo), new to the workforce.

Importantly, the “rules of engagement” in any social setting have not changed. It’s always been inappropriate to use the kind of language this guy used and to interact with people in such a disrespectful manner. What has changed is the impact of these behaviors. In the past, one might have a meltdown at a meeting that a handful of others observed and that they might recall and talk about for some time. But, online, those meltdowns have the potential to be seen and experienced by literally thousands of others – and they don’t go away so easily, if at all.

Takeaway message: Be careful out there.

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