The Unwritten Code of Conduct

The author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous for good reasons. The Whisperers know the author, and consider this to be a very important issue in contemporary academe.

Impact and public scholarship have become ever more popular elements in institutions, and more attention and pressure on researchers around questions of what academics are ‘allowed’ to say comes very much to the fore.


Photo by Ondrej Supitar | unsplash.com

Photo by Ondrej Supitar | unsplash.com

Each day this week, my supervisor has walked into my office and made verbal demands that I remove content from my beloved blog.

Each day, the boundaries of appropriate social media usage shift a little, and my requests for some clear written guidance are rebuffed.

I’m a postdoc at a research-intensive organisation.

I work in a typical physical science department. That is, it’s a highly male dominated environment with an age profile skewed towards the era of peak Bob Dylan fandom. This isn’t necessarily a problem. But, in my case, it is.

My department has chronic cultural problems. Bullying, gender and race-based discrimination are commonplace, and things are particularly toxic for early career researchers and female academics. I am both, and have experienced first-hand sexist, homophobic and racist comments, and inappropriate physical contact from senior academics in my workplace.

I have long been an advocate of social media as a tool of academic engagement. I have been blogging for several years, on topics ranging from content in my research field to my nation’s research policies and issues affecting women in science and early career researchers. Blogging and Twitter have helped me engage with a new academic community, providing an avenue to talk about key issues in our industry, to identify problems, and to suggest ways forward.

It is a positive and enjoyable contrast to my day-to-day work environment. Social media makes me feel like I’m contributing positively to an industry where women and young people are notoriously disenfranchised. Despite my difficult workplace culture that alienates minorities, I have a deep commitment to my institution. I guess I believe that if only these cultural issues could be fixed, it would be a bastion of intellect and creativity – something I’m sure we all desperately want academia to be.

My social media usage has been a curiosity to my more senior colleagues who trained in a different era and remain firmly rooted to theirs ways of working and communicating. I have given many “twitter tutorials” to my supervisor. He seems impervious to my suggestion that social media is not inherently shallow, that it gives us an avenue to engage more deeply with issues. I’ve even shown him that my blog is not just snaps of my Sunday brunch but talks in depth about critical issues such as working towards diverse participation in academia and science.

This was a mistake.

I have since been told that my blog is defamatory to my organisation. I’ve been told that my blog has contravened the employee Code of Conduct. Each day, the goal posts shift. Although I’ve written compliant emails to my supervisor saying that I am very open to a discussion about appropriate social media usage, and will respond immediately to such a discussion, none has been forthcoming. He has refused to provide guidance of appropriate usage and will not provide any documentation of his concerns.

As a result, I’m paralysed. I’m inhibited in tweeting or blogging because I’ve been told my current practices are inappropriate, but still haven’t been provided with a benchmark to determine appropriateness. Any perceived misstep and I’m sure there will be an angry knock on my door.

Social media issues are far broader than my current tight spot. Social media usage is a minefield in any industry, but particularly tricky in academia, where the distinction between personal identity and academic role is infinitesimal and freedom of expression is vast and encouraged. As a result, clear guidelines for academics around public expression are more necessary.

However, research institutions typically cover social media usage under broad policies and procedures of employee conduct in relation to upholding the good name of institutions and exercising good judgment. These policies are inherently vague and subject to diverse interpretations.

In my case, I feel that I have always demonstrated my positive commitment to my workplaces by working towards improving our industry. From my perspective, those that have brought the institution into disrepute are my colleagues who liberally share offensive jokes in the workplace, discriminate against others, or condone those that behave in these vile ways. My supervisor clearly disagrees. He holds a very different perspective about good judgement and where the boundaries of appropriate conduct lie.

In my immediate experience, most academics who engage with each other and the world through social media do so in a constructive way. They intend to critique in order to improve, not disparage, the research industry. This is a difficult tightrope to walk at the best of times, but it becomes impossible while we operate under an unwritten code of social media conduct.

I would be most happy with my supervisor butting out of my tweeting and letting me get back to enjoying it. Clearly, this won’t happen.

If universities are intent on monitoring, moderating and censoring the social media presence of academic staff, then it’s only fair to actually write these unwritten rules and work together towards some transparent and fair guidelines.

Developing university or faculty level social media committees would be great starting point for bringing together academics and professional staff with expertise in this area and developing guidance around best practice.

Such committees would ideally recognise the power of these tools and aim to promote social media’s potential in a positive light.

23 Responses to The Unwritten Code of Conduct

  1. enrique says:

    Great post … But why remain anonymous? Why not “call out” your tormentors by name?

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Because they are tormentors.

      Liked by 5 people

    • maggies90 says:

      Because, the point this article is trying to make is that those in power are wanting their people to comply with a code of conduct that has never been written. Social media is a new phenomenon that people who remain Luddites in this arena tend to try to control out of fear of the unknown. After all, how dare an academic become famous for their blogging or dare I say twittering! How dare kudos be won in this way – much less by someone who is not of the power group. As to the discrimination, that is indicative for many women and naming names can bring about repercussions that further penalise the person being victimised. There is a time and a place for that.

      Liked by 3 people

      • enrique says:

        Not calling out the specific bad apples does no one any favors and makes it impossible to verify the misconduct alleged in the original anonymous post …

        Like

      • David says:

        Thank you Maggies90. Mostly the people that fear social media are those that have a reason to fear it. That reason is the fear of being exposed in some way or shown up. It may mean their pedestal becomes a little shaky and rather than fix it, it is far easier to use power to smother those that may expose it. I believe Enrique missed the point of the entire post!

        Like

    • David says:

      Because they will find a way to get rid of her. Therein lies the problem.

      Like

  2. Diane Strode says:

    This is typical of most universities where OWG (old white guys – and their buddies) predominate. They won’t change so you need to change. You can spend endless time and energy trying to change them, becoming bitter and gnarled in the process. My advice is to either get out now or comply with their rules (written or unwritten) until you are done. Even though neither of these options are very palatable they are the only choices you really have. I hope you will finish your PhD/postdoc or whatever you are up to and then find a university where you can be comfortable and write whatever you wish in whatever media suits you best. Remember, the same kind of problem you encounter now will occur in many universities or other large organisations where you might end up working. Another thought, if your relationship with your supervisor has gone permanently bad, then you might as well change them now because you will need good recommendation letters to get a job in a university elsewhere. Think carefully now, how important is this non-thesis related writing to you? Is it worth stuffing up your academic future career for? Do you want a career in an OWG place? Do you know of a place where you would be happier? I think you should do some deep career-oriented thinking before you make a move. No place is perfect. Best of luck.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. M-H says:

    Without knowing what you have written it’s hard to judge whether it might be considered damaging. I thought most universities had policies around staff use of social media, and I’m surprised that yours doesn’t. Social media has been with us for more than ten years now; blogs for more than 20.

    I would take this higher. If there are no policies, no-one can tell you what policies you are infringing. You could check the University policy on use of old media, and use that as a basis for judging what you do. Your other option is never to blog about work, which might be an option for you. It’s what I do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • specific social media ‘policies’ aren’t that common. Many just apply existing communications policies. I like the approach of universities that use guidelines that help people use social media in a constructive and useful way rather than scaring people away from using digital media.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        I’ve found that , too, Heather, that social media policies often aren’t specific to the media. They are often very reliant on existing university policies (or guidelines) about staff behaving ‘professionally’ (which can be fairly subjective terrain). Where there are issues, it often boils down – as it does in law courts – to interpretations of terms and common understandings of the way things are done.

        Taking the lead and giving good examples of constructive and robust engagement would go a long way to demonstrating what’s good practice for academics online. Only focusing on the punitive is taking the wrong road.

        Like

    • bethany100 says:

      I agree with M-H. It’s hard to know exactly whether the anonymous person has violated accepted practices. I completely understand her desire to remain anonymous based on her current situation. However, a bit more detail about the nature of the “offending” content would be helpful.

      It’s also unclear exactly *who* is telling her that her blog has violated the employee code of conduct. Is it only her supervisor saying this? Her department chairperson? Or someone higher up in the institution? In other words, does the “accuser” even have the authority to enforce any such policy? Are they even fully informed about the policy and standard procedures for handling (perceived) violations?

      At this point it seems that her supervisor is the WRONG person to be dealing with in resolving this situation. Is it possible that there IS in fact a more detailed policy, but the accuser simply never consulted it? …This shouldn’t come as a surprise to some people, but often tenured faculty are the Least informed about institutional policies! Some of them actually believe it’s a waste of their time to keep up-to-date on current policies. In fact I’ve heard those exact words spoken by more than one faculty member over the years.

      My suggestion would be to directly contact the human resources resources department (or employee relations, university relations, etc.). Simply ask them for a written copy of their “Social Media Policy”, or else an http link to their written policy. There’s no need to explain the reasons why you’re asking for it — in fact I’d recommend against it. Just request a copy as though you expect that there is one, and see what information you get out of them.

      These days it is unusual for an institution/company NOT to have a written policy on social media for its employees. At least this is the case in the U.S.. Maybe it varies in other countries. In the U.S. there have been several high-profile lawsuits filed by former employees against their employer for wrongful termination for alleged violation of their social media policy. This has prompted many organizations to write more detailed policies on social media guidelines for employees. Typically ALL employees are given a copy of the policy, and they are required to sign a document saying they have read it, understand it, and agree to the terms of the policy.

      Here’s an example of the Social Media Policy in place at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin. This is just one example. An Internet search will produce many others. As you can see, it’s quite detailed. Of course, certain parts of this policy can be open to interpretation, but many parts are very specific and leave no room for confusion:

      Social Media – Policies and Guidelines (Office of University Relations)
      https://universityrelations.wisc.edu/policies-and-guidelines/social-media/

      Like

  4. Pingback: The Unwritten Code of Conduct | Rhonda Wilson MHN

  5. Kate Bowles says:

    Across Australian higher education over the last 5 years a significant gap has opened up in understanding, managing and using social media between administrative users and scholarly users. Social media marketing typically attempts to manage brand reputation, and to look after the treatment of things like institutional logos in public. But then hashtags, as all higher education brands quickly realise, aren’t controlled brand devices. So the bulk of policy action is in this sphere, often playing catch-up.

    But when it comes to academics and scholarly blogging, or academics and opinion on Twitter, many institutions end up falling back on “acceptable use” IT policies or more general conduct policies, or traditional media policies, and all these are really pretty hopeless when trying to understand what academics should be able to say on public platforms, using their own devices, over networks that aren’t owned by institutions.

    Social media policies need regular, collaborative review if they’re to work effectively for a whole organisational community, including in protecting what is really valuable about being able to examine higher education itself through a critical lens. And as this writer makes clear, at stake is the distinction between having a personal voice as a citizen, and having organisational obligations as an employee. This is complicated in many professions, and really messy for academics.

    Certainly things shouldn’t be hashed out using imprecise threats and unwritten rules in this way.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Teens says:

    Honestly? As a female and having worked in academia, I wouldn’t be staying silent or paralysed. If your content is just then there is no need to hide behind a screen. By doing so, they win.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As I would advise reaching out to a central team (hopefully there is one) who run social media – facebook, twitter, or whatever. Most probably in marketing, or maybe a central web team. Try to find other people at your organisation who have a social media presence and ask if they know of any guidelines or can see any issues with your content. If they are happy, then your supervisor will have no basis to ask you to remove content.
    Get in touch with the central communications team and see if they can help, or offer guidance about appropriate content.

    Here’s a couple of social media policies that may be useful…

    http://www1.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=7dm2i15ukmpl
    http://www.policy.monash.edu/policy-bank/management/global-engagement/social-media-policy.html

    Good luck!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The communications team at your institution might be a good place to go. Also, try speaking to the people about what benefits have come to you from your use of social media e.g. have you been involved in any collaborations? Has social media helped improve any aspect of your research? That can help people to understand why it can be valuable and not a source of harm.

      Like

  8. Pingback: ‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia | The Research Whisperer

  9. KT says:

    I fully sympathize with the blogger and her reasons for remaining anonymous. I worked in the R&D industry for nearly three decades and watched over the years, not just the preservation of outdated values, but the decay of personal liberty of employees in the corporate culture. Now corporate employees must sign Non-Disclosure Agreements and are required to follow Employee Code of Conduct that essentially strip us personal freedom of speech, our ability to freely lobby or promote ideas, and even our personal ownership of all our ideas and creations, whether or not they arose on the job. We essential sign away our brain. Worse, employers will dictate what you say or cannot say in your research if these things affect their agenda or their customers agenda. I was once funded by public money from the federal government to perform objective research. The results would affect government decisions, ones that could affect funding in part of the government that I worked for, my company’s customer. So my employer told me that, under threat of my being fired, my results could not undermine their customer’s objective. My response was to leave my employer of twenty five years, take a university appointment, and publish unmitigated results. The results, I’ll add, did not undermine anyone and I was fairly sure that they would. Their threats were pointless. However, I would not, could not continue to work for an employer that would tamper with research in such a way. So, I recommend that anyone working for a commercial company that purports itself to be a “research institution,” especially one that subscribes to the values of American corporate culture, look carefully at their policies, listen to what your managers say, and what they do. Then consider what you loose if you stay. If it is too much, then look at a university, or similar institution, check out its policies (e.g., no NDEs or Codes of Employee Conduct), and consider working there. It may not pay as well, but you’ll be able to sleep more easily at night.

    Like

  10. Margaret says:

    Speaking to Human Resources might be helpful. If there are communications or social media guidelines for the institution, they should know, and can share this information with you. You can then pass on what you have learned to your supervisor and direct him to speak to HR if he has further questions. Good luck.

    Like

  11. Gazza says:

    A colleague and I regularly engage in stoushes with bigots on social media sites. The bigots object to exposure of their bigotry and idiocy and typically respond with a stream of insults which we largely ignore because we know this means we have got well under their skin. Lately however they have adopted another tactic. My colleague is a research student who thankfully enjoys strong support from her university. The bigots under the mistaken impression that she is a lecturer have taken to lobbying the university to have her dismissed. In my case I am a now retired but worked in a research lab in a government department. They have been futilely lobbying my former employer to dismiss me for using my government computer to post messages on social media. Good luck with that one. Not only am I no longer working for them I never used my wprk computer in social networking sites when I was. Whoever you are you have my sympathy. In my long working life I have seen what sort of struggle competent and capable women have in progressing in their careers and the difficulty with males they are supervising when they do. That said I have also seen the problems when women are promoted into positions beyond their capability on the basis of meeting some gender-based target. That does them no favour either but I have also seen the same when the old boys network does the same for male applicants.

    Like

  12. Sounds like you are in a terrible bullying environment. I suggest you finish up quietly and leave. Of course you could start a new blog under a nom du plume to protect yourself. I suggest you do this asap. I experienced this many years ago (pre-social media) over health and safety issues at a major graduate school in Florida. You are scaring people and they respond with threats and ill-deeds. Take them seriously as they will attempt to make your life miserable and quietly blackball you or find an excuse to get rid of you. Find a better place. When you are more established in your career you can admit to your nom du plume, if you care to. Of course if your surroundings and the behavior of people are harassing (legally) in nature, then you should document everything in writing, keep a secure backup of all documents, and then find an attorney. But if you go this route, it will be you against them and you may become unwelcome at your university. Seek mediation first. But always have witnesses (“advocates”) with you.

    PS: I won . . . . . eventually.

    Like

  13. Tseen Khoo says:

    UPDATE: The author of this post quietly finished up her appointment and moved elsewhere, to a department that’s much more supportive of social media usage and diverse opinions.

    Many thanks to all those who provided constructive advice for the author and those who may be in similar situations.

    Liked by 1 person

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