Toward a Social Sales Force: Ominous Lessons from Rutgers

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In late September, two Rutgers University students clandestinely videoed a fellow student’s private liaison with another student, and tweeted about it as events were unfolding. The victim, freshman Tyler Clementi, committed suicide on September 22d. An incendiary mix of circumstances fueled outcry from around the world. Mr. Clementi’s partner was male. His privacy was invaded. Social media technology played a significant role. A promising life, needlessly lost.

Did the actions of Mr. Clementi’s fellow students cause his suicide? Did they catalyze his despair? Were the perpetrators naïve, hateful, or both? These issues merit open debate. But they should not obscure three painful truths: 1) the outcome of this incident was tragic beyond anything that words can express, 2) the behavior Mr. Clementi faced was undeniably cruel, and 3) vast space surrounds limited legal protective boundaries—especially in the digital age.

Sadly, we’ve only started to see the dangers emerging on the horizon. And they’re coming to your sales force. The two students implicated in this incident, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, aren’t archetypal evil misanthropes. According to a segment on NPR yesterday, friends describe them as “outgoing, bright, athletic, and computer savvy.” Attributes anyone would want in a new sales hire.

But could this tragedy occur outside a college campus? Say, in a sales organization? A better question is what would prevent it? An unpleasant topic, but one that must be confronted. According to the Christian Science Monitor, (Rutgers Student Death: Has Digital Age Made Students Callous?, October 1, 2010), Dartmouth freshman Nina Montgomery, who attended high school with Clementi in Ridgewood, NJ, “says her generation of digital natives is getting bored and looking for ways to experiment with new technology. As a result, she believes, more cases as severe as this one at Rutgers will occur. ‘I don’t think people understand the great responsibility that comes with the power of the Internet,’ she says.” Corporate risk managers, take note: information technology might be a strategic enabler, but it’s a force multiplier for stupidity, bad judgment, and malice. Get ready! The class of 2011 will have resumes online before summer.

The article continues, “Other observers of youth culture and media culture believe the media environment – including reality shows that use hidden cameras – is desensitizing young people to the hurtful effects of their actions. One recent University of Michigan study found that college students’ empathy declined by about 40 percent between 1979 and 2009 . . .”

Empathy down by 40%? So much for customer-centricity and outside-in process. Great ideas while they lasted, though. There’s more. A picture is coming into focus, and it’s not pretty. In an interview with New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, NPR’s Robert Siegel said “I haven’t heard you answer the question about Photoshopped images of the Obamas dressed up as a pimp and a streetwalker.” Paladino’s response? “I apologize to anybody, okay, who may have been offended by my resending of emails. I didn’t create them. I re-sent them.” Nice try. Paladino proves that the failure to see a connection between social media use and personal responsibility isn’t limited to millenials.

Malicious broadcasting of videos and emailing disgusting altered photos–who thinks this stuff up? Apparently, very ordinary people. And that’s the point. If you were interviewing a sales candidate, how would you uncover such bizarre proclivities? Which is why corporations face insidious risks when they don’t monitor the online behavior of employees, and when they don’t prescribe guidelines. What would Carl Paladino, Dharun Ravi, and Molly Wei do if they were competing for a top sales rep bonus? If they wanted to discredit a competitor that was gaining an advantage in a key account? Or if they had a former boss who, in their view, stiffed them on a commission check? If those questions don’t cause you to shudder, check your pulse.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social sites have mingled personal and professional social media content—probably forever. So when we discuss “the power of social media,” we need to understand the risks imposed from the darker, negative side, and not to simply assume a positive connotation. We need to understand how people, absent an ethical compass, can warp ordinary goals by taking malevolent actions, or by taking ordinary tools and using them for malicious purposes. We need to understand how technology can propel those actions at warp speed, and what this means for enterprise risk. Finally, we must understand, in every dimension, the damage that can result.

Nina Montgomery, the Dartmouth freshman, is right: we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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