"Your reputation precedes you."
In a different generation, when those words were heard upon meeting someone for the first time, they were most likely followed by a handshake, a smile, and the beginning of a promising relationship -- the reward for a sterling reputation that most often was years in the making.
In a virtual world, however, the reputation that precedes people can be just moments in the making -- and trigger the immediate judgment of millions from afar. The impressions that people make through what they post on social networks can determine whether a relationship will begin, continue or end -- and not just with them but, increasingly, with those they represent.
In today's connected world, employees who exercise good judgment can put their best foot forward on behalf of themselves and their employers.
Yet just as easily, employees who fail to use good judgment -- or any judgment at all -- can drag their employers down through electronic guilt by association. As Warren Buffett famously said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."
Postings on social media can shatter personal reputations and corporate brands at the speed of light.
Lately, we've seen far too much breakage.
Today, social media is blurring the line between personal and professional lives. How employees present themselves on social networks, therefore, can pose reputational risks for businesses -- and, complex challenges for senior leaders and human resource executives.
The results of a recent survey I commissioned about social networking indicate that your company's potential for reputational risk may be greater than you think. Deloitte's 2009 Ethics & Workplace Survey examined social networking from two perspectives. First, we polled 500 executives whose businesses may or may not have policies about social networking in the workplace.
Among the results:
* 60 percent said that employers have a right to know how employees are portraying themselves or representing the company on a professional or personal networking site.
* 58 percent felt that the reputational risk associated with social networking should be a board room issue.
* Only 17 percent, however, said they have programs in place to monitor and mitigate the possible reputational risks related to social network use.
Our survey also polled 2,000 workers over the age of 18 regarding their attitudes about social networking. Their feedback:
* More than half of the employees said their social-networking pages are not an employer's concern. That belief is especially true among younger workers, with nearly two-thirds of the respondents stating that employers have no business monitoring their online activity.
* While 74 percent said it's easy to damage a company's reputation on social media, 34 percent rarely or never consider what customers or clients might think before posting online.
* Furthermore, 41 percent said that, even if their companies had a clear policy about social networking (only 17 percent of the executives polled said they did), it would not make an impact on the way they behave online.
From two vantage points come two very different views -- but there might be one thing all of us can agree on: Social media is here to stay.
How people communicate through those media should be a continuous exercise in responsible judgment and ethical decision-making. The challenge for businesses is to find a way to foster appropriate online behavior, while respecting the independence and privacy of their people.
It won't be easy, especially in a world where the boundaries between work and life continue to converge. While rules and regulations about social networking might be the traditional response, our survey findings seem to indicate that something more fundamental is needed.
We need to tap into why people choose to present themselves as they do -- and communicate how important those decisions are for themselves and their companies.
To help make that connection, I urge companies to emphasize with their people the important relationship between personal and corporate brands. Just like a corporate brand, a personal brand represents what makes individuals different and unique in the minds of those who encounter them.
Companies can give their people the tools they need to better align their personal brands with their corporate brand. Creating a values-based culture -- and living those values every day -- is a great place to start. Most employees are looking for cues from their leaders as to what constitutes acceptable behavior in the workplace.
In fact, in the first ethics-in-the-workplace poll that I commissioned two years ago, we asked people outside Deloitte to identify the top factors that influence their conduct. Seventy-seven percent of those polled cited the behavior of management or a direct supervisor.
When leaders live the values of their corporate brand, many of their people will, too. That can be instrumental in helping companies and their people be seen at their very best -- especially in a connected world.
Consequently, every employee must act as a leader. Senior executives can help make that happen by communicating regularly with employees -- and making their own personal brands an example to follow. I believe that continually reinforcing principles of sound judgment and proper conduct is a far more effective influence on social media usage than a pejorative, rules-based approach or one that punishes employees after the fact.
It's worth the effort. With time and attention, the reputation that precedes our people can help build valuable relationships in a world that is quick to judge.
Sharon Allen is Chairman of the Board, Deloitte LLP.