My attention was caught this morning by a fascinating discussion on BBC Breakfast regarding personal social media profiles. It was off the back of a number of high profile cases where celebrities have been required to apologise after a series of historical comments on social media came to light which contained discriminatory language.

The discussion moved on beyond this, and centred around the old chestnut of whether employers should use prospective employees’ social media profiles as part of a recruitment screening process. One of those speaking argued that employers were well within their rights to do this, and none of us should put anything onto social media which we wouldn’t want our employers to see – for example, us the worse for wear after a few drinks.

Two very different points

To me, it’s important to separate what I see as two very different points. Should employees – either current or prospective – be pulled up for discriminatory or defamatory comments on social media? Absolutely. And should individuals active on social media in an official business capacity be required to tailor the style of those posts accordingly. Yes, I believe that they should.

But should we be ruling out those individuals from our recruitment process whose sole error is to perhaps not lock down their personal social media profiles as much as they could, revealing photos of them out for the night, or interacting with friends and acquaintances using slightly more colourful language than they might employ in the office?

Personally, I’m deeply uncomfortable with that course of action. And the reason I’m so uncomfortable with it is that we are effectively asking people to censor themselves. What we’re saying is that our human sides have no place in the place of work.

The perils of censorship

In some ways, it’s understandable that we feel nervous when it comes to social media. Social media by its nature is uncensored. It contains people’s raw emotions and open and frank comments.

If you think about it, this is in stark contrast to the environments we have sought to create at work. Typically, we want our workplaces to be ordered, and structured, and predictable. People are essential in order for us to be able to run our businesses, but it is those self-same people who are frequently described as causing problems at work, behaving as they do in an unpredictable and unstructured manner. We’ve even created an entire department to manage the ‘problem’ – our HR teams, who have implemented realms of policies and procedures in an attempt to bring order to this most unordered of resources.

Not robots

And that, I think, is why social media scares us. Because it’s an acknowledgement that actually, these people we employ… they are human. They’re not ‘resources’, and they’re not robots. There might be times when they scream, or rant, or break down in tears, or swear, or complain to their mates about the dreadful day they’ve had at work, or go out for the evening and have one too many beers.

But, guess what? It is actually conceivable that they could do all of that… and still deliver great things for our business. Not only that, but I’m willing to harbour a bet that it’s often our most passionate and outspoken people who are able to make the biggest difference at work. Do I really care if their social media profiles show that they’re not a professional robot? No. I don’t.

Workplaces of the future

I appreciate that my view on this is a minority one. Showing too much of our human side online continues to be a risk when it comes to how we are perceived by employers. But I believe that this will change. We are designing workplaces for the future, workplaces which are designed to take into consideration the needs of a 21st century workforce. We now accept that many of the archaic working practices we have tolerated for so long are not actually helping our organisations to deliver. As we start to see working patterns, locations and ways of working change, my hope is that somewhere along the way we will also get comfortable with our employees’ right to show their human side. Provided it doesn’t hurt anyone else, we should all feel able to bring our true self to work. Embarrassing night out photographs and all.