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Social media policy: The blurry line between personal and professional

For anyone advising companies on social media policy, the Tim Thomas situation is a fascinating case study in action.

Thomas is the starting goaltender for the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. He set records in last year for making the most saves during the Stanley Cup Finals and having the highest save percentage in history during the regular season. He capped his historic year by being the first goalie to earn a shut out on the road during game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, and winning awards for playoff MVP and best goalie in the league.

Now there is the distinct possibility the Bruins will trade him this year. Crazy thought. Here’s why.

It may happen because of his use of Facebook to express very strong views about government that gained attention when he refused to attend the White House ceremony on January 23 honoring his team’s Stanley Cup victory. In announcing his decision, he pointed media to this post on his Facebook page wall.

His White House snub became a national story and dominated the Boston sports radio talk shows for two days in the middle of the Patriots’ Super Bowl run. The debate was whether Thomas should have used the occasion to express personal views over being with his team for a ceremonial, non-political event (every President regardless of party has recognized major sports champions for decades). The speculation also raged about what the Bruins organization felt about his decision.

The issue died down — for a while. Despite the fact that he said in the post above that this would his only public statement on this topic, he used his new found Libertarian celebrity status to continue expressing his idealogical viewpoints, mostly in the form of quotes from the likes of John Adams, Ben Franklin, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. He also used the controversy “stand with Catholics” on the federal funding for contraception issue.

Really Separating Personal and Professional?

Naturally, each subsequent post only prodded the media to ask him about his views, what is motivating him to continue, and why he’s posting them on a public forum and refusing to talk about them with the media. It reached a boiling point last week when Thomas walked out of an interview session. It’s further raised questions about whether it’s become a distraction to the team, whose play has tailed off during the time of the controversy.

In the interview during which he walked out, Thomas cited the line between his personal and professional lives and that he has a right to “remain silent” on the personal side.

When asked why he would post his political views on a public forum, then refuse to talk about it in the locker room, Thomas became testy.

“This is my job,’’ he said. “Facebook is my personal life. That’s why. If you guys don’t understand the difference between an individual and it having nothing to do with a job and an athlete and his personal life, then I think there’s a problem.

“I don’t think that when you become an athlete that you sign away your right to be an individual, and to have your own views and to be able to post them on Facebook, if you like.’’

Thomas clearly became annoyed with the line of questioning and cut short another related query, threatening to end the interview.

“Enough of this,’’ he said. “This is my personal life and it has nothing to do with hockey or the Boston Bruins, and I’m not going to address it. You guys can keep asking. You can do this every day. From now on, the first question I get on it every day, I’m done interviewing for that day.’’

The media attention certainly has done wonders for his Facebook page, as before the controversy his political quotes would get at most 10 likes and a couple of comments. Since then, each one receives hundreds of likes and comments per post and thousands of wall postings, mostly in support of his views. If he wants more attention on his personal views from like-minded individuals, he can thank the media for that.

Notwithstanding his rights of freedom of expression and speech, which of course he has, on the question of the line between personal and professional especially when social media is used, the issue that no one is considering is the policy in place by his employer, the Boston Bruins, and the league in which it plays, the NHL.

The league implemented an official social media policy before the start of this season that absolutely is relevant in determining where this controversy is going.  Here is the part of the policy that is relevant to this situation, which is summarized from the NHL.com article on the announcement:

Also, the new policy makes it clear that players and club personnel will be be held responsible for their social communications in the same manner in which they are held responsible for other forms of public communications. As a result, discipline is possible for any social media statements that have or are designed to have an effect prejudicial to the welfare of the League, the game of hockey or a member club, or are publicly critical of officiating staff.

I have been involved with helping several companies develop, implement and train employees on social media policies. Every one I’ve seen contains some kind of language similar to the one above. Everyone has a right to use Facebook for personal reasons, and absolutely should state that the views expressed there are their own.

That said, every company employs individuals that command more media and public scrutiny. When a personal profile or page gets the attention of the media and it wants to know about extreme views or content, regardless of whether or not that person has a right to not answer questions, it becomes an issue for the welfare of his or her employer. A reason for these policies is to protect companies in such situations, and typically allow for termination.

I don’t know for sure, of course, but I would expect that the Bruins front office is having these discussions almost every day. The question is, will it affect the welfare of the team so much that it has to take action — possibly in the form of a trade? And if it does, will another team want that distraction?

It’s fascinating to see how this will play out. How do you see it?

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