Is Professionalism Dead?

Social media might be the grim reaper for professionalism. 

By Kat George

Social media might be the grim reaper for professionalism. As the age of social media unfolds around us, the repercussions of being constantly visible and active online are beginning to manifest in increasingly tangible ways. Consistently, social media is proving that professionalism is on its way out, replaced by egos and entitlement in an era where saying whatever you feel like online is, for some, an expectation rather than a privilege.

In a recent study, The Harvard Business Review found that people are connected, on average, with 16 co-workers online, and that 40-60% of hiring managers use social media to screen candidates. For this reason, the casualness suggested by the term “social” seems misleading given that professional relationships and even careers can hinge on a person’s profile. Because of the increasingly blurred lines between the professional and the personal, many might not even realize the real-life manifestation of their digital presence. A study in the Canadian Medical Journal about the social media practices of medical practitioners acknowledges the trail of breadcrumbs we leave online, saying that when people “tread through the World Wide Web, they leave behind a ‘footprint’ that may have unintended consequences for them and for the profession at large.” The Guardian puts a lot of this down to context and interpretation: “What could be just a rough day on your part could sound like whining and ingratitude to the casual reader, and over time may form a perception that your personal brand isn't one of which you should be proud.”

Complaining, taking jabs at peers (whether passive-aggressively or directly) and companies or organizations one has had experience working with via social media is becoming increasingly commonplace. In a world where people can lose their jobs over a Tweet—like this Cavaliers fan who Tweeted racist comments about Steph Curry’s sister earlier this year and was fired from his job at Holton-Wise Property Group—it’s a wonder people still feel comfortable taking aim over social media. Firings like the aforementioned suggest that professionalism is, to some extent, being protected by employers. But cases aren’t always so clear cut.

Instances of aggression online, including sexism, racism, or any other hate speech, cross a clear boundary. But snide asides, engaging in idle gossip or even taking to Facebook groups to comment on one’s problems at work, generally aren’t going viral for getting staff fired. In fact, these actions are so commonplace, it seems that digital professionalism is slowly being phased out, and confession culture is taking its place. We are increasingly seeing people venting frustrations online, rather than over the dinner table, at the end of a long work day which is having a huge impact on the professional world and what professionalism is in an era of constant connectivity.

The Canadian Medical Journal suggests avoiding conflict by treating social media as a public space. Interviewed for the study, Dr. Kevin Pho says, “I have what I call the elevator test. If they wouldn’t say it in a crowded hospital elevator, they shouldn’t write it on a social network.” And yet. Here we find ourselves in a world where professionals don’t mind making a status update detailing their problems at work: even when they’re followed by co-workers, and even their employers. Professionalism might not yet be dead, but it’s certainly being tested.

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