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Does Federal Personnel Management Policy Prohibit Social Networking Based Job Referrals?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

More than 5 years ago my first exposure to “web 2.0” based professional networking was via Linkedin. As an independent IT management consultant it seemed natural to use web based networking to grow and develop professional relatiomships. Combined with my blogging I embarked on a rewarding series of professional experiences that have continued to this day.

I was recently brought up short, though, by what I read in this morning’s Washington Post in Joe Davidson’s Federal Diary column titled Survey may show whether managers adhere to banned practices. Davidson discusses a recent report by the US Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) titled Prohibited Personnel Practices – A Study Retrospective. The report focuses on a set of “prohibited personnel practices” in order to determine how well Federal personnel management is functioning in areas such as job discrimination and whistleblowing. What caught my attention was “number two” in the report’s official list of “prohibited personnel practices”:

(2) Solicit or consider any recommendation that is not job-related and based on personal knowledge of the employee or applicant;

The key phrase here is “personal knowledge.” Would it be correct to conclude that informal communications such as those supported by various social networks might be viewed as “prohibited practices” if these communications appear to involve communications between potential Federal managers and employees? What if such networks are explicitly being used because they do support more informal communications that effectively bypass — or ignore — formal organization boundaries? And what if these informal communications result in “personal knowledge” about potential Federal employees by those involved in hiring?

The report concentrates on reporting trends in Federal workforce survey-reported perceptions of job discrimination, whistleblowing, and unfair hiring practices. I do wonder how the prohibited practice “Solicit or consider any recommendation that is not job-related and based on personal knowledge of the employee or applicant” will be interpreted in the upcoming survey of Federal employees that the MSPB will be sponsoring. Use of social networks by Federal employees is growing; reading through group discussions on the social network GovLoop shows that. Also, any jobsearch consultant or coach worth his or her salt has to address how professionally oriented social networking is a key element in any job search; just look at all the Federal employees who are active on Linkedin.

Of course, not everyone has openly embraced “web 2.0” communications in support of all Government processes; my own research into the use of collaboration tools in support of Federal acquisitions attests to that. Change takes time. As users of social media and social networking have found in the private sector, employees need to understand and embrace corporate policies about what can and cannot be discussed openly. The same is probably true for Federal employees. Hopefully appropriate regulations and processes are being developed and implemented so that Federal hiring practices can be managed fairly while still enabling Federal employees to take advantage of the communication benefits offered by social media and social networking.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald. Contact Dennis by email at [email protected].Originally published June 15 in Dennis McDonald’s Web Site.

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