Social media vs the workforce — What defines someone as unprofessional?

Dea Mandija
4 min readMar 31, 2021

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On October 4th, 2019, a study paper was published with the goal to take a look at unprofessional and potentially unprofessional behaviour on social media. Its focus was on young vascular doctors that had recently graduated.

Three male individuals (yeap, that detail will come in handy later on) scoured the personal social media of these doctors, precisely, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to “evaluate the extent of unprofessional social media content”.

According to them, about 25% of the publicly identifiable social media accounts had clearly unprofessional behaviour or potentially unprofessional behaviour.

And yes, there’s a difference in those two definitions.

The difference is what completely erased the validity and utility of the study.

It’s what made the hashtag #MEDBIKINI criticising the paper trend on Twitter last year. The doctors, you guessed it, were posing in their bikinis.

And I believe it’s what causes an elitist and not realistic view for a “professional” employee.

Here are the definitions:

Clearly unprofessional content included: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act violations (HIPAA aka patient privacy violations), intoxicated appearance, unlawful behaviour, possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia, and uncensored profanity or offensive comments about colleagues/work/patients.

To a degree, that seems reasonable. In general, we can all agree that doctors shouldn’t post about patient information, offend their coworkers online, go against the law and go live on Insta at the same time (hah) etc. Common sense.

If the study had stopped there, it would have been a very helpful piece of research, not only for the healthcare industry but the workforce in general.

HOWEVER, then you wouldn’t have a rant written out by yours truly now, would you?!

Potentially unprofessional content, on the other hand, included: holding/consuming alcohol, inappropriate attire, censored profanity, controversial political or religious comments, and controversial social topics.

Oh boy. This definition completely delegitimises the study and it’s almost as if simply having a life outside of work is deemed potentially unprofessional.

Are you a physician and want to post a bikini picture when you’re at the beach? Well too bad, swim on your lab coat and call it a day. Do you want to cover important social topics on subjects such as abortion on your social media? Nah, we don’t need reliable scientific sources offering a view online nowadays anyway. Want to post a picture with a glass of wine? Oh dear, the horror!

It really doesn’t help that the team doing the review for the social media profiles were three male individuals. The methodology is incredibly flawed and offers room for plainly obvious biases.

The least you can do in a study is facilitate a diverse team of people to do the investigation.

Thankfully, the article has since been retracted with an apology from the journal that published it.

And before anyone starts bitching about cancel culture, first go read another article of mine, you’re gonna have fun. Second, scientists calling out a paper with a flawed methodology and meaningless conclusions isn’t cancel culture.

But have we gotten rid of the impossible standards and prejudices against workers on social media yet?

Your employees are humans, not just marionettes to your “brand name”.

This narrow definition of professionalism isn’t only apparent in the healthcare industry. If you do a simple search on google on Tips for job seekers and social media, suggestions on being a cut clean prototype will pop up. Don’t swear, don’t party too hard, don’t post too much blah blah blah.

Doctors (and other professionals) are human beings too. Humans like having fun, going to the beach, or having an alcoholic beverage of their choice. They should post about it if they desire without fearing ruining a professional reputation.

Of course, there are grey areas in this freedom. There’s a big difference between posting your opinion on a social issue online vs hate speech. Regulations and policies should intervene in the latter.

However, that’s not the main concern in the debate that this paper sparked, and it’s not my focus either.

Human beings have multitudes of dimensions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a doctor, teacher, accountant, lawyer, engineer, artists, author etc. To a degree, we all have the same interior complexity and the same capacity to hold contradictory feelings. The beauty of the internet is what made this all so obvious.

When we remove barriers and don’t hold jobs/positions to impossibly high standards, we also form a real and healthy perception for that career path.

We try so hard to put people in these little boxes which are heavily affected by our perceptions of the world. You can’t be an art enthusiast and a science lover. You can’t be a girly girl and still be assertive at work. Can’t be passionate about your job and enjoy a healthy life balance.

Either one or the other. All or nothing.

The sooner we start seeing people for the multifaceted human beings they actually are, the sooner we realise that when we deal with employees, we are dealing with our own species.

And honestly, I’d much rather see a software developer getting drunk on my Instagram timeline than a pseudo CEO bro on Linkedin claiming he’s rewriting history. But I digress.

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