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Social media: the hidden risk of professional misconduct

Author: ICAEW

Published: 27 Apr 2021

As the pandemic further blurs the lines between our work and personal lives, how can firms and individuals reap the benefits of social media while ensuring the highest standards of professional conduct?

Social media is part of our everyday lives at work and at home. But the very things that make it attractive and useful can also make it riskier than you might think. Its familiarity, immediacy and ability to engage large numbers of people mean it can also pose significant threats to everything from client confidentiality to your organisation’s reputation, and even your career.

ICAEW is seeing an increase in complaints about members' professional behaviour, and in particular those related to their activities on social media. Sometimes a post or blog may be obviously inappropriate, for example if it uses aggressive or discriminatory language, or contains misleading information about qualifications or experience. But there are also far more subtle ways in which poor social media skills, including unintended disclosures, can lead to problems. 

When ICAEW’s Professional Standards Department developed its latest training film, Without Question, there was no doubt that social media had to be part of the narrative. During workshops to identify topics to include in the film, participants flagged inadvertent breaches of confidentiality on social media as a key business risk. “This was what was keeping the risk partners at all the major firms awake at night,” explains Duncan Wiggetts, Chief Officer, Professional Standards Department, and writer of Without Question.

Think twice

The film shows how an audit manager involved in an IPO shares a post with friends on a personal social media account. This includes a photo of colleagues attending a meeting, which allows a journalist to work out that the firm she is working with is about to float. As the drama unfolds, the manager apologises and says she “didn’t realise” and “wasn’t thinking”. She is removed from the audit and HR is informed of the disciplinary matter. 

By engaging the emotional side of the brain, Wiggetts believes the scenario will help people put themselves in a similar situation and remember how the manager felt. “If you’re thinking about doing something, it might make you think twice in future,” he says. “These are the potential consequences, and you don’t want to feel how she did.”

To identify where the greatest risks from users lie, some firms have carried out further research. These studies generally divide staff into three distinct social media user groups: the expert or prolific users; those who lack an understanding and are incompetent in exploiting such channels; and those who lie somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps surprisingly, the research shows the risk is greatest at the two ends of the scale. While the risk from those at the bottom of the scale might be obvious, the risk from expert or prolific users is equally significant. “That’s where firms are now looking for who the riskiest people are when it comes to social media,” says Wiggetts.

This finding illustrates the twin dangers of familiarity and immediacy. “Someone might be posting something as they walk towards the lift, without thinking through the consequences because it becomes so natural,” Wiggetts explains. “So you have to inject the risk management part of the brain into that very natural, quick action.”

A question of ethics

ICAEW’s Code of Ethics requires accountants to act with integrity and avoid any conduct that might discredit the profession. And this is where most of the risks from social media lie.

A post can take seconds, but once it is out there it may be shared with any number of people, including those it was never intended to reach. Yet, the nature of social media can lead to a false sense of security as people feel they are talking privately to friends. At the same time, its immediacy means there is less time to reflect or edit feelings or thoughts, so users may post language or opinions they would never share in more conventional, professional arenas.  

Failures to comply with the Code, whether inadvertent or not, can lead to professional reprimands, as well as financial penalties such as fines and costs. Recent examples where ICAEW’s Investigation Committee has taken corrective action include offensive comments made in a blog and subsequently shared on Twitter, and breaches of confidentiality on Snapchat.

Golden rules

Given the personal, professional and financial costs of failure, how can firms and individuals mitigate the risks inherent in their social media activities? It can help to bear in mind some core principles or “golden rules”:

  • Never share anything about work on social media channels, other than formal communications such as a post already put out or approved by your organisation.
  • Be cautious about accepting friend requests, think about who you follow and be careful when using tags.
  • Keep your professional accounts separate from your personal accounts.
  • If you ever post images of colleagues, even in a social context, on your personal accounts, ask their permission.
  • Always keep confidentiality in mind – a picture on Instagram or a location tag could reveal confidential information.
  • You are what you post, whether on your private or professional accounts, so think about the image you’re presenting and how it reflects your values, views and your profession.
  • Never exaggerate your experience, training, qualifications or other credentials in any forum.
  • Understand the privacy settings for each of your accounts, and set and check them regularly.

Above all, always stop and think before posting anything, whether on business or personal accounts. Imagine who might read or share it, how it could be perceived, and how it could reflect on you, your organisation, your clients or the wider accountancy profession. One simple but effective trick is to imagine you are posting on the side of a bus. Would you be happy for everyone on the street to read it there and have it travelling it around your town or city for months to come?

To help members use social media productively while avoiding some of the pitfalls, ICAEW has produced a technical helpsheet.  

More information about ICAEW training films is available from icaew.com/films.