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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Executives on Social Media

Emerging Technology Creates Another Ethics Issue

Patrick Coutermarsh
Tuesday, May. 6, 2014

Source: Jason Howie (Flickr)

Friday night, recently hired (and now fired) PayPal director of strategy sent out a series of both odd and inflammatory tweets. The messages, by Rakesh Agrawal, read more like drunken ramblings and included derogatory remarks toward specific executives of PayPal. The company responded on Twitter: “Rakesh Agrawal is no longer with the company. Treat everyone with respect. No excuses. PayPal has zero tolerance.” As the social media craze continues, companies are increasingly asking their executives to cultivate an online presence, but they are very sensitive to the kind of presence. While there are a number of benefits for companies — letting customers put a face to the company, showing a commitment to users, and cheap advertising — the Agrawal v. PayPal debacle demonstrates how the process can go awry. As executives craft their personal brands, they do so with the name of the company in their “taglines and bios.” Are the risks too great to ask an executive to blog and tweet with his or her corporate identity? On the other hand, can a company impose restrictions on what an employee says online?

 Kirk: Companies seem to want it both ways. They want the credibility of an executive interacting online as an individual, but also want to control the positions and image they present. Clearly a company cannot afford to have employees criticize customers or other shareholders, but it’s on them to call it like it is: it’s not free speech; it’s corporate PR. With that as the starting point, companies can then come to an agreement with employees who enter the social media sphere on behalf of the company.

 Patrick: The line between “professional” and “social” life is increasingly disappearing: does listing where you work on a profile mean you are continually representing the company in an official capacity? I agree with Kirk when applied to employees who are online at the company’s request, but things get more interesting when their efforts are unprompted—or better yet, when a disgruntled former employee takes to social media. Then again, an interesting byproduct of social media is that anyone can create a platform to voice their thoughts: an important balance to the power differential between employees and employer.

The Complete Saga (So Far) of PayPal vs. Former Executive (The Wire)

A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center)


May 6, 2014