A week ago, my friend Michael Rubin alerted me to a CNNMoney.com/Fortune article that rubbed him the wrong way. I and many others who cover social media had the same reaction to “Building your brand (and keeping your job).” Not only did the article seem unfair to Scott Monty, a marketing leader who has been widely recognized for the good work he’s done at Ford Motor Co., but the author focuses a great deal of criticism on the actions of employees whose social media activities ran afoul of their employers rather than considering how those employers might have benefited from a different approach and attitude. 

At the core of the article is an accurate and interesting conflict, which Jerry Wilson of Coca-Cola describes well: "The personal branding process can create stress within a corporation. People will see if you are merely trying to advance your own career, as opposed to contributing to the success of the organization." This conflict is one that will evolve in the years to come as social media continues to change the way we communicate, form relationships, foster corporate culture and manage our careers. But rather than explore this conflict in any interesting way, the article dumps on social media-savvy employees.

The examples presented include:

  • A Home Depot employee who secured the approval of his boss to use Twitter to organize a town hall where customers could come in and offer feedback to management. Within days, that same boss told the employee that his Internet use was being investigated and he was put on a paid leave of absence. The employee was soon terminated for inappropriate use of work time. The lesson according to Fortune? “Don’t be overeager.”
  • A Microsoft employee who created a brand presence that permitted him to network and gain an understanding of the Microsoft perception among “business gurus.” But when he shared those impressions inside Microsoft, “no one was listening . . . they thought I was namedropping." Now, this employee filters himself, choosing “discretion over self-promotion.” Fortune’s recommendation: “Branding, not bragging.”
  • A Synopsys employee who responded to a company inquiry for bloggers, attended a company-offered blogging class and worked on his Synopsis blog “often in his off-hours.” He continued this company-sponsored effort, even after hearing that “executives were divided on blogging's ultimate value” and that a VP said he "was wasting time blogging." He was laid off and the employee noted, "There was no question that my association with the blog contributed to my being laid off." Fortune tells employees, “Be sensitive to changing priorities.”

I suppose the advice to employees isn’t incorrect, but where is the advice to employers? Does anyone else get uncomfortable with the companies’ reported actions in those three examples? My feelings about this article came into focus when I read a blog post on the Next Level Blog entitled, “Seven Simple Rules to Create a Fear Based Culture.” Scott Eblin suggests, “a good way to learn leadership is to do the opposite of what really crappy leaders do.”  Among the habits of "crappy" leaders are:

  • Kill the messenger,
  • Ignore the people on the front line, and
  • Keep them guessing.

Sound familiar? The examples from the Fortune article seem to be great examples of Eblin’s fear-based culture. 

Now, I’m sure there’s much more to these stories than is captured in the Fortune article (as is implied when Synopsys notes it has a dozen currently employed bloggers and Home Depot says it isn’t aware of anyone terminated for conducting social media on behalf of the company). In fact, I have worked with two of these companies and found them to have open, candid and collaborative cultures. 

My gripe has less to do with the companies cited than with the conclusions drawn by Fortune. When faced with some (seemingly) egregious examples of harmful corporate culture and actions, the author of the article chose to caution employees rather than employers. Isn’t the bigger lesson not that employees need to be smart and cautious but that employers need to consider if and how their corporate culture translates in an age of increased transparency and sharing? Wouldn’t companies be better off with employees who ask to sponsor town halls to hear the voice of their customer? Or employees who can provide a flow of information about influencer attitudes? Or eager employees who step forward and volunteer for company-sponsored social efforts?

The article gives good advice to personal branders (“Prove your worth” and “Get credit — when it’s due”) but where is the good advice for employers? Fortune missed an opportunity to provide the more interesting and important angle on this story.

Those intrigued by this topic will want to watch for the release of Empowered, the sequel to Groundswell.  The book, written by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, is due out September 14 and tells how to “unleash your employees, energize your customers, and transform your business.” Here’s a quick quote from the book: Serving the empowered customer “is much harder than it sounds. It means your staff are going to be coming up with solutions on their own. The ideas don’t come from management; management’s new job is to support and empower employees.” There’s more wisdom for business contained in that brief passage than in the entire Fortune article!