Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Don't Tickle Me Elmo, Or Text Me, Or IM Me...

Here’s the thing: the invention of instantaneous and traceable technology (instant messaging, text messaging, email, etc.) is blurring the lines of communication between adults and minors.

We all know how impossible it is to read tone in a written message. Anything can be inferred or implied and particularly, if your audience is of a questionable age, well, you can find yourself chum in unchartered waters.

We have seen the stories on the news:teacher has sex with student, teacher has child by student, teacher marries student…the cases are many, some true and some complete fabrications and vicious lies. Despite the fact that we are the land of innocent until proven guilty, claims made by minors are often widely claimed to be truth and if charges are dropped or cases are thrown out, those announcments never see page one. Countless people have lost plenty from their relationships with minors.

There must be a line, right? So where is the line? It’s very, very hard to see. (Insert Squint Here) Young professionals often have the hardest time, particularly if they go on to work in their own communities. Many times they interact with kids from families they know, or continue to build on a reputation earned in school themselves. They don’t necessarily “feel” like grown-ups yet, at least not in the sense that they aren’t hip to the latest in pop culture. They watch the same movies and television shows, listen to the same music, go to the same concerts, etc. Friendships have been formed on less. BUT, the difference here is intention and, of course, inference.

As an HR professional, I encountered a situation while working for a organization a few years back. The non-profit is located in a major city and supports thousands of youth each year. The adults that work there are heroes and often the only solid, dependable adults in the members lives. After a Friday night event, the employee and a member (who is a minor) ended up instant messaging with one another into the wee hours. The topics of conversation included insubordinate, disparaging and untrue remarks about the employee’s boss and appeared to cross the imaginary line that would separate an adult and a minor. We terminated the employee, who seemed genuinely confused as to the inappropriateness of his actions. While he knew that what he said about his boss was more than enough to be fired, he claimed that the minor had initiated contact and that he had done nothing wrong in “chatting” with her at all hours of the night.

Was he wrong? I believe he was. Was he malicious? Probably not. He was young, it was one of his first real jobs and he spent more time with the kids at work than he did with other employees. (That was his job.) So, if he built friendships or had camaraderie with the members, in fact, it was a good thing because that was what he was supposed to be doing. That said, it should be absolutely and unequivocally clear that employees and minor clients communicate only in a professional manor. (Just remember CYA - Cover Your Ass) If the kids need to contact the staff, they can call and leave a voicemail on the work phone extension. Or, they can email the work email address. No cell phone numbers – no personal email addresses, no IM names.) Blurring the lines between professional and personal worlds is what creates the recipe for becoming chum, as it did here.

Go on any of the networking sites (myspace, facebook, connectu, linkedin, etc.) and you can connect with a whole world of people that misrepresent themselves and aren’t who they seem. That is a risk that you take when you connect with someone you don’t know personally. However, when you do know the person and know that they aren’t legally of age then you absolutely should know the risks. You must take as many precautions as necessary to protect your reputation, career and livelihood. The damages can be far reaching – the impact will touch your friends, parents, coworkers, acquaintances, exes and neighbors in ways that even vindication can never repair.

Employers in ‘vunerable’ business areas such as mentoring organizations, kids clubs, schools, athletic organizations would be wise to really train employees extensively in this area. (Not the same old “sign here” that sexual harassment training has become.) In trying to keep up with technology and the latest trends, we often offer up information in ways that are less than traditional, professional or proprietary. And what you don’t know can, and will hurt you.


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