We’ve all been there. One moment you’re casually surfing around the Internet, enjoying the casual scrolling and clicking, and then the next you’re falling down the rabbit role of a heated Internet debate. Who hasn’t felt for at least once the overpowering urge to chime in on an online argument over an important or controversial topic? To offer their two pence over a hot issue? To prove other people out there in cyberspace wrong about something?
Wrapped in a veil of relative anonymity, the Internet provides the perfect platform to spread your personal beliefs and voice your opinions before the world. The polemic can start on virtually every online corner, whether it’s a work forum, message board, comments section of a news portal, or a social media site like Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook. The temptation may be unabashed, the rush you get from it irresistible, but when you step on the ball – is it really that worth it?
Dangerous territory – especially for business owners
Think twice before you engage in such a verbal wrangle, especially if you: run a business; are a high-profile manager or executive; or have every intention of becoming one. The consequences of interjecting your personal beliefs, particularly on sensitive matters like politics and religion, can be far-reaching and extremely harmful. In other words, your little Internet dispute can backfire before you even reach the logout button, and even quicker so if you’re under scrutiny from your employees, employers, or the general public.
Let’s delve deeper into why this is. Pew Research Center posted a study that reports “25% of social network site (SNS) users say the sites are “very important” or “somewhat important” to them for debating or discussing political issues with others.” (…) This hardly comes as a surprise, given that we live in an era of social media, digital communication, and instantaneous exchange of information. Although the way we communicate and express our thoughts and beliefs has changed dramatically over the last decade, mostly due to Internet and the development of technology, the underlying human emotions, opinions and behaviour that drive the communication have remained unchanged. In fact, they are as sensitive and inherent to our innermost selves as they were hundreds and thousands of years ago.
When things get knotty
The same study by Pew Research Center also reports that “18% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone on the site because the person either posted too much about politics, disagreed with political posts, or bothered friends with political posts. And 16% of SNS users have friended someone whose political posts have appealed to them.”
So what happens if you use the Internet for spreading your beliefs? Keep in mind that most future (and current!) employers Google their employees – and the other way round. The last thing you want is your boss finding about that fiery debate on the war in Middle East you took part in on a bulletin board three years ago; and the stakes are even higher if you are the boss or owner of the company. You could lose the respect of your colleagues, employees, clients or customers, it could cost you money, and you could even get yourself tangled up in a costly lawsuit. So, to reiterate our question from the beginning of this post, is it really worth it?
Finding a balance
There is often a very fine line between stating your beliefs and forcing them on others, especially if you’re in a hierarchically superior position. Of course, workplace conversations will involve discussions about private life, and sensitive topics will get into the mix. Banning your employees from talking about their beliefs is not only impossible, but is also considered as hostile and intolerant.
How to find the right measure, then?
It’s a conundrum well-known to employers worldwide, and one there is no simple answer to. Mostly, it’s about common sense, emotional intelligence, and being genuinely respectful to other people. The Economist perfectly summarises the ambiguous employer position, stating that “the pressure on bosses to let employees display their beliefs more openly comes at a time when they are having to be more guarded about expressing their own.” The piece mentions the infamous case of a civil-rights groups calling for a boycott of the US fast food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A in 2012, after a senior executive publicly opposed gay marriage. After mounds of negative press and public backlash, the corporation was forced to withdrew from the debate and stopped financing anti-LGBT organisations it previously supported. Learn from others’ mistakes.
You are a private person, but your actions also represent the company you’re working at. You’re not working in a vacuum; instead, you probably share your workplace with people of various profile and backgrounds, and each of them deserves to be treated as a human being of worth. Same goes for your clients and customers. If you respect them, they will feel valued and make sure they pay you back with loyalty and fairness. No amount of marketing, no matter how brilliant or expensive, can cover up the lack of respect for others and their own values and beliefs.