Companies Consider Virtual Employee Standards of Conduct

Scantily-clad waitresses may move burgers and wings at Hooters, but companies like IBM are less than pleased to find employees involved in virtual worlds dressing in bondage gear and digital phalluses.

A recent press release from industry research firm Gartner, Inc. sheds some light on the obvious reasons why big business might not want its employees' virtual representations dancing around in a Department of Energy-themed ballgag:

As the use of virtual environments for business purposes grows, enterprises need to understand how employees are using avatars in ways that might affect the enterprise or the enterprise’s reputation

We covered the possible professional conflicts of real-world workers indulging in virtual fantasy last week. In light of the Gartner report, this controversial issue deserves a closer look.


Virtual Code of Conduct

What's interesting about the Gartner report isn't that it provides useful guidelines for regulating what a company's in-world representation can wear, but that real-world companies didn't consider this before launching a virtual presence. 

Do developers like Electric Sheep have a professional obligation to inform their corporate clients that virtual employees may spend slow hours at sex clubs? Is this the job of a developer? To solve the problem, Gartner posits an idea that many virtual worlds users know all too well:

Organizations can avoid problems with employees mixing their personal and professional avatar interaction and activities by suggesting that employees use one avatar for their work interactions and another avatar for personal activities.

The meat of the Gartner Report, though, is a call on companies to expand their code of conduct to the virtual world if they plan to do business there.

Limiting acceptable clothing or location options to employees whose avatars do company business in the virtual world is a good idea in theory, but difficult to enforce in practice.


The Wild Metaverse

This is because of the built-in ease of switching clothing and skins native to Second Life and emerging games like Blue Mars. A few clicks can change an avatar from the company shirt to leather straps, and companies with a limited virtual presence have few resources to provide constant monitoring of avatar behavior.

Unless an avatar is well-known to work for a company – and from my experience, few corporate sims have notable virtual personalities as yet – the avatar is perfectly capable of switching from work to personal use without the rest of Second Life knowing.

Does this spell an increase in virtual world monitoring resources among those companies already invested in the virtual world? Unlikely. Companies are more likely to promote the easily-achieved benchmarks of the Gartner Report.

Providing new virtual world employees with "Brand Education" is much easier to show on a progress report than developing a team to monitor your employees through the virtual work day. With economic times tight and visible progress a primary concern, expect companies to make few changes to their current virtual dabblings.

4 thoughts on “Companies Consider Virtual Employee Standards of Conduct”

  1. Companies could avoid problems altogether by just investing in their own company last name. Then they could issue official work avatars to employees who need them, making it clear that the work avatar is the property of the company and only to be used for work purposes.
    If being caught with your Suzie IBM avatar in a sex club could lose you your job, then you’ll probably be careful of where you’re seen with it

  2. An excellent and logical idea, Annyka: the obvious extension to the “Linden” avatar identity in Second Life, issued only to employees of Linden Lab for official use… and the inclusion in the ToS that it is an offense to impersonate one.

  3. Annyka makes valid point… and if the employee wants to explore more about SL or other virtual worlds on the net. Do it at home on your own account and avatar, not on the companies avatar. Problem solved… common scents would tell you that. But I see less of common everyday, RL or SL.

  4. Another alternative is to use private enterprise worlds. Lindens offer one, Second Life Enterprise (though at $50,000 it might be a little steep for small and medium-sized companies).
    However, there are plenty of providers offering private worlds based on the OpenSim platform, where the company fully controls the environment, the clothing, avatar names, and everything else. (Starting at $25 per region per month.)
    These could work well for corporate meetings, training sessions, collaboration — not so good for customer outreach though, since the retail population is on Second Life.
    OpenSim worlds are also trickier to access than Second Life — you either have to tweak the command line for the SL client, or download one of the OpenSim-friendly clients — and still need to manually add the company’s grid. This can be a royal hassle.
    Finally, some virtual world platforms — I’m thinking web.alive, or 3Dxplorer — offer web-based access combined with corporate control. The lack of interoperability with the Second Life/OpenSim ecosystem may even be an advantage for corporations anxious not to see bondage gear in the virtual workplace.
    – Maria Korolov
    Editor, Hypergrid Business

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