On March 15,2016
Good REALTORS® are used to thinking about the Code of Ethics. Beyond the ethical guidance it provides, it is also a professional obligation. But what about the application of the Code of Ethics as it relates to social media? While the Code is typically very clear, it's application to social media can be ambiguous.
Between “private” accounts, character limits, and inexperience applying the code to online behavior, it is easy to forget the Code of Ethics or overlook some of its provisions. This could result in an ethics hearing or even a lawsuit. Keep the following rules in mind to avoid finding yourself in trouble over an easily preventable situation.
Assume everything you post is public.
It isn’t just the content you publicly post—whether it be to your Facebook wall, as a Tweet, or a comment on someone else’s public post—that you should be concerned about. Even private messages on a social media platform can come back to bite you, particularly if you choose to say something disparaging about another real estate professional or a client. Messages you meant to be private can be saved and shared with anyone. A quick screenshot of an old Facebook message can be a serious problem.
Give credit where credit is due—clearly.
Let’s say your close friend is also a real estate professional. You attend a broker's open and you decide to share it on social media. No biggie - you think it is an amazing opportunity and include the address. Maybe you post a picture of the property. You think nothing of it—you aren’t trying to steal the listing. A week later you receive notice of an ethics complaint, alleging you violated Article 12 of the Code of Conduct. Someone (perhaps your friend’s employer?) objected to you posting about the property without making it absolutely clear that you were not the listing agent and obtaining consent to advertise the property. While you may think you are being unnecessarily attacked for helping your friend, you cannot assume everyone will feel the same way. There are case interpretations of Article 12 at realtor.org covering similar situations. The simplest way to avoid this situation is to not make posts like this. But if you choose to, make it very clear who is listing the property and that you are not associated with the listing.
Don’t complain on social media either.
While it might be possible to find yourself in hot water over social media posts made with good intentions, it is definitely possible to run into trouble over negative or disparaging posts. Consider another hypothetical. You had a listing on a property that expired. The next day, your clients sign with a new agent. You have suspicions the new agent had solicited his or her services to your clients while your agreement was still active, but you have no way to prove it. Your former clients refuse to speak about the subject. Lacking evidence of an ethical violation you choose to not file a complaint . Instead you post a vague message on your personal Facebook page about the frustrations of your job and stolen clients. Maybe a friend or family member comments, asking if this is about the house you had not been able to sell. Perhaps another person comments about one of their experiences with a shady real estate agent. Your former client’s new agent finds out about this post from a friend (a realistic possibility, I’m sure you could think of a handful of potential common connections in a few seconds), obtains a screenshot, and files a complaint with the Professional Standards Committee alleging a violation of Article 15 of the NAR Code of Ethics. The agent claims that you are knowingly and recklessly making unsubstantiated false and misleading statements. The moral of the story: don’t complain about business on social media. Between clients, employers, and rival agents, someone can and will find something to be offended by. A perceived breach in contract or code of ethics could result in the loss of a client or even a job.
Cover your bases with personal accounts.
It is common knowledge that REALTORS® are required by the Code of Ethics to disclose their status as a REALTOR® when carrying out business. But what about on a personal social media account? If you keep your personal and professional accounts separate, you shouldn’t have any problems. But separation is key. If your friend shares a listing for their house that is on the market, “sharing” it further might be kind and helpful. But, as a real estate professional, you would then be required to make it clear that you are a REALTOR®, that you are employed by Employer X, and that this is not your listing. This might seem unnecessary (particularly if you have a relatively small number of friends on social media and aren’t operating a prominent account), but it is a far better option than a formal complaint when someone decides that you misrepresented yourself.
Keep private information private.
It is easy to let information slip in conversation. You tell a friend about a commission or a client that was trying to downsize after losing a job. While this might constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics, you are also unlikely to find yourself on the receiving end of a formal complaint. Talking about these topics on social media—regardless of whether or not you’re doing this in a private message, a public post, or a private group of some sort—is not just a violation: it’s a paper trail. You’re best off not violating the Code of Ethics (it’s in place for a reason). But you’re worst off leaving evidence of violation that you committed without malice or the desire to damage the reputation of another person. Leave private information out of social media.
Be smart—even if you come out of a Code of Ethics hearing unscathed, you will still have wasted your time and possibly damaged your reputation - your most important asset.
The few hypothetical situations in this post are realistic and just scratch the surface of what can be done on social media. Good intentions won’t prevent an ethics hearing. It’s common these days to reach for our phones and rant. Just remember - someone is always listening.