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Blurred Lines: How To Maintain Professionalism in Online Communications

Posted: September 18, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

By Guest Author Carol L. Morgan

 

 

Maintaining Your Professionalism in Your Online Interactions

 

Have you heard of professionals who faced serious negative consequences due to mistakes or lack of professionalism online?

 

 

  • A young private school teacher was fired after being tagged in a photo at a bachelorette party holding a popsicle shaped like a certain male body part
  • Two child care workers were fired after posting Instagram photos of children in their care and mocking the children with derogatory comments
  • An OB/GYN physician was slammed for posting a comment on Facebook about being frustrated with a consistently unpunctual pregnant patient

Social media allows businesses to engage with consumers and colleagues online and while the benefit of this popular form of communication is great, the risk can be too.

Potential employers, professional contacts and even new personal contacts will research you online first; what they find may determine whether or not they decide to continue building a relationship with you (or bring you in for a job interview). This is why it is so important to maintain a professional image online.

Your involvement in social media may be influenced by your profession '“ you can imagine, for example, how physicians, lawyers or teachers have to be very careful about what they share.

The George Washington University Law School Career Development Office suggests we all are really (or should be) two different people '“ the person that we are online and the person that we are in real life. The best way is to avoid problems is to simply not post any personal information (who we really are with our family and close friends) online. Or, you could create two online profiles, one for your close friends and one for everyone else. Of course, many sites have policies against having two profiles. And even with two profiles, those lines get blurred. Sometimes you rush and misspell a word in an important email and sometimes, a friend posts a picture of you with a beer at a football game.

Whether you are communicating via email, text, social media, or another electronic method, there are a few basics you should keep in mind:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Always proofread your work. Spell-checker is great but isn't going to catch everything. You should read over every email, blog post or social post before you hit send/enter. If it's a long and/or critical piece of work, ask a coworker to proofread it for you. Follow grammar rules: capitalize where appropriate, avoid run-on sentences, etc. Laziness in grammar can certainly make a negative impression on a prospective employer, client or industry partner.
  • Strike a balance between being too formal and too casual, i.e., be respectable, but friendly and conversational.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule still applies online. Be honest and complete. Do not be misleading or complicated.
  • Communicate in a timely fashion. The digital age has made us all antsy for information so do not delay your responses. If it's something you need to research or ask someone else about, let the sender know that you'll get back to them once you have an answer.
  • Relatedly, be brief. Everyone has other items on their plate, so don't waste their time with nonessential information or being overly verbose. Keep it simple.
  • Make sure that you invite a response. Something as simple as, 'let me know if you have any additional questions, or need more information, etc.,'? and including your contact information will let others know that you welcome ongoing communication and value their communication (in other words, don't seem to be in a rush to finish communicating with someone). How annoying is it to feel like someone doesn't have time for you?
  • Pause before clicking enter, post or send. Consider how whatever it is you are typing reflects on you professionally and on your business. Use the grandma or newspaper test. Is this something you'd want your grandma to see or that you'd want to see in the newspaper?
  • Keep in mind that you have no control over privacy setting changes to your social media accounts. It is your responsibility to stay informed about changes and monitor your settings so that you know what gets shared with everyone and what doesn't.
  • Use the appropriate tone. The 'voice'? of your communications should match company culture and principles. For example, the voice of a custom, million dollar home builder should be different from an intown condo development aimed at young professionals.
  • Never post or respond when you're angry. Take the time to cool down. You may have a very different response a few hours after the fact.
  • Also remember that online communication (no matter the form) leaves no room for nonverbal cues like facial expression, gestures, eye contact and intonation, so you can easily be misinterpreted and misinterpret others.
  • Don't forget that nothing can replace face-to-face contact, so make sure that you make time for regular in-person follow-up meetings and get-togethers, as well as phone calls.
Professional Etiquette in Emails & Discussions

In addition to the tips above, I also wanted to share some email and discussion list etiquette.

Email Etiquette: When communicating with someone you know well, you may be able to bend the rules on some of these (for example, I sometimes do use a smiley face), but it is only with established clients or close colleagues and in specific situations.

 

 

  • Use a professional address, not something like 'toohott4u@whatever.com'?

 

  • Use a standard, commonly used font, such as, Arial, Calibri, Times or Tahoma

 

  • Do not type in all caps '“ using all caps in moderation is fine, if necessary for emphasis, but they shouldn't be used often

 

  • Do not use chat slang/acronyms like LOL, BTW, BRB, OMG, etc.

 

  • Do not use smiley faces or animated, cutesy graphics

 

  • Use an appropriate subject line that accurately describes the subject of your message

 

  • Be concise

 

  • Be considerate and cautious about what you say '“ remember that email can easily be forwarded

 

  • Sign your emails with your full name and contact information. Do not use inspirational quotations under your name/signature

Discussion List Etiquette: Professional etiquette regarding politeness applies in discussion boards as well. Discussion boards can be a great way to make acquaintances online, establish your expertise, learn something new, etc., but very often, conversations on discussion boards can get out of line.

 

 

 

  • When you first join a list or group, learn the tone of the group. Don't start posting immediately, as your thoughts or questions may have been already discussed, and the other members will very much appreciate you taking the time to find your answers first.
  • Take the time to thoughtfully compose your message and check it for errors. Remember that you are being judged in these public forums.
  • Avoid sarcasm, as it can be misinterpreted, and be cautious with humor, as some may see it as meaningless and unnecessary.
  • Remember that prospective employers could find your comments by Googling your name, so never post any rude, nasty or offensive comments.
  • Be especially careful if posting using your employer's email. Your comments will reflect on your employer as a whole, even though you are posting as an individual.
Who Should Post on Behalf of Your Company

If you're a business owner or manager trying to decide who in the organization should contribute to posting on your company's social media sites, the importance of picking the right people cannot be understated. There are countless stories of Social-Media-Manager-Gone-Wrong out there, from the poster lashing out at customers and competitors in a public forum to posting personal information accidentally (thinking they are signed into their personal social media accounts). Handling social media is often times left to an intern or a junior member of the team, which is a mistake. The person or people handling your social media posting should be someone who knows the company, its inner-workings, values and processes well, and knows the industry inside and out. How often have you read a blog post and thought, 'Did a high school student write this?'? Chances are you may not be far off.

In closing, you should think of what you put online as both permanent and public. Quick or careless decisions or actions posted online could haunt you forever. Even if a post is removed, cached versions of web pages are still able to be viewed, duplicated and reposted, as can be images and text, and deleted files can be retrieved. We all know that a majority of employers are researching job candidates online first, so bottom line: Be careful about what you post. Always think through how whatever you are posting could reflect on you personally, professionally and on your company and its success.

About Carol L. Morgan

This featured article is by our friend and colleague Carol L. Morgan, who is a public relations and social media marketing specialist and managing partner at mRELEVANCE. Carol has 20 years of experience in the real estate and construction industries, earning herself the reputation as the go-to person for social media marketing and all things public relations. Her success and experience has led her to author two books, 'Social Media For Home Builders: It's Easier Than You Think'? and 'Social Media For Home Builders 2.0'³ and create the top online forum for Atlanta Real Estate.

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