Integrity In and Out of the Office: Is Social Media a New Watchdog?

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social media / Sean MacEntee

October 25, 2016; Colorado Springs Gazette

Social media likely cost a Colorado foundation CEO his position, as he resigned soon after his personal Facebook posts were reported online. According to his resume, Elliot Pulham grew the operating budget of the U.S. Space Foundation from just under 2 million to 10 million dollars over his 15 years in leadership.

Earlier this month, Pulham caught the eye of NASA Watch—but not for the work he was doing inside the foundation. In February, he had commented on a story about sex workers caucusing for Clinton in Nevada. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, his comment was a less bowdlerized version of, “It takes a (prostitute) to know a (prostitute)? Hookers for Hillary. You can’t make this (expletive) up!” The story also noted that Pulham had posted at least five times within the year about first-class flights the foundation provided to him as an extra job perk, tied to his salary which was reported to be in excess of $300,000 in 2014.

The U.S. Space Foundation Board of Directors quickly found itself in what should be a case study. While Pulham did not make any negative comments about the foundation or complain about his work environment, an area that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has recently shown a special interest in protecting, his actions leave questions. Should Pulham be allowed to share his personal opinions off-duty, and if so, what is the impact?

The first lesson for boards of directors is that social media policies are often considered to be enforced from the CEO down, but they should really begin with and include the board. The second is that social media policies are not simple. Organizations are unique. Just this week, the Huffington Post published “Looking Beyond the Trump and Clinton Foundations to New Trends in Philanthropy,” which included work from Nonprofit Quarterly. In the story, Jason Wingard focused on the characteristics of strong U.S. foundations, which “understand that integrity and trustworthiness need to permeate everything.” He said that due to access to information, “this expectation exists on a scale never experienced before, and affects foundations that need to prove their effectiveness and trustworthiness to donors, the government, and a host of other stakeholders.”

Even when off the clock, a board member, a CEO, or a staff member of a foundation has the ability to instantly and negatively impact the organization’s visage of integrity and trustworthiness with one message. A single post or tweet can jeopardize donors’ and partners’ feelings about a foundation’s culture and effectiveness, especially when delivered by the CEO. An employee at a fast-food chain, on the other hand,  can post the exact same statement as Pulham and, while their employer may not like it, it will likely not keep customers from returning to their drive-thru.

Wingard said that foundations’ “key to thriving is demonstrating integrity and…commitments to stakeholders.” For a charity, respect, integrity, and trust are elemental parts of its product; each member of the organization upholds its overall culture. They are as important to its health, growth, and development as clean, quality food is to the fast food industry. Pulham’s message could be seen as the equivalent of the Taco Bell employee who was fired for licking tacos and posting it on social media.

Pulham was the leader. He was the top executive, enforcing the culture and policy for the rest of his staff, and he posted controversial, uncaring content in a public forum and bragged about executive incentives. While we have so many great leaders running charitable foundations built on integrity and ethics, sometimes social media does not just turn on a spotlight; it brings unintended limelight, too.—Michelle Lemming