I ended 2012 as I have the past couple of years, highlighting my view that, while technological advances are great in many respects, it’s still the inter-personal relationships that lead to success in our professional and personal lives. But that was not intended to ignore that online relationships are very much a reality today, and require employer and HR awareness of several issues.
Hear about Manti Te’o? Hear enough about Manti Te’o? Me too. For those too busy to read, hear or see the news lately (which means you’re probably not reading this), Te’o is the college football linebacker at the University of Notre Dame who first made headlines with his strong play in 2012 after the apparent death of his girlfriend and grandmother at the same time. He then made headlines last month when it was revealed that his girlfriend’s existence and death had been faked, and that he was apparently hoaxed into believing that he was involved in a purely online relationship with a woman who didn’t exist. The University (akin to his “employer”) came out in full support, but clearly had to address the issue.
Out of this drawn-out story comes a heightened awareness of online relationships. And the term “catfishing”. As explained by Ben Zimmer, correspondent for the Boston Globe, the term “catfish” (used these days as a verb) describes “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances[.]” The humanized activity of catfishing seems to stem from the act of those who shipped live codfish in vats and then put catfish in the vats to “keep the cod’s flesh from getting mushy” and “keep the cod agile”. In other words, the catfish was used to make the codfish feel and be more alive.
Who would’ve thought we could learn a new and interesting term from yet another story about an athlete?
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development?
It is not truly relevant whether Manti Te’o was having a “real” virtual online relationship, or whether he had been “catfished” into thinking he was having one. What is relevant is the effect that a similar story involving one of your employees can have on your workplace.
Employers are obviously limited in what and how they can regulate lawful off-duty activities, but you should at least add this concept to your company’s checklist of HR sensitivities and ask yourself 5 questions:
1. Does your company truly understand the reality of online, virtual relationships in 2013 and how they may be impacting your employees?
2. Does your company have an appropriate policy and practice regarding fraternization, workplace romance, and “love contracts”?
3. Does your company’s policies and training on harassment and discrimination include a discussion of online relationships?
4. Does your company’s policies and training on violence in the workplace and domestic abuse address the perils and pitfalls of online relationships?
5. Does your company’s policies and training on general workplace rules and productivity deal with the time spent by employees communicating online and playing online games?
What do you do now if you’ve answered “no” to any of these? Ok, I know, that was 6.