01/24/2012 03:54 EST | Updated 03/19/2012 09:54 EDT

Consumer Boycotts Online: Should An Employee's Opinions Affect Buying Decisions?


Have an opinion? You might want to be careful where you publicize it.

That's the lesson being taught each day on Twitter and Facebook, where employees who reference their jobs in their profiles toe a fine line between personal judgements and professional responsibility.

One such case came up this week, when Shaun Moynihan, Creative Director at ColourLovers -- a website that offers colour palette inspiration for designers, as well as creative software -- made his opinions about abortion quite clear in a series of tweets that began with this statement:

The notes set off a firestorm in the social media arena, drawing ire from the many customers who rely on ColourLovers' service, alongside vows never to use the site again. As graphic designer Lindsay Goldner wrote in a responsive blog post:

My feelings on the matter are this: if I am AWARE of a company's politics/policies (this includes beliefs advertised by the companies' higher-ups, like Moynihan, in my opinion) -- and I disagree vehemently with them, I'm going to do everything in my power to avoid giving that company more money .... Really, politics aside, it's a matter of businesses -- and their employees -- on social media, and what happens as a result of associating yourself with a brand (or aligning your brand with various viewpoints). You have a right to your opinions. I have a right to mine. But I also have the right to choose not to patronize your business, visit your website, or buy your products, if I come across things that your business says/does that I disagree with so strongly.

Product boycotts are, of course, nothing new. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a worldwide boycott was called on Nestle products for misinformation given to nursing mothers about the company's formula. A few years ago, a group of teenagers organized a "girlcott" against Abercrombie & Fitch for shirts they deemed offensive. But how's a company to control what employees are saying on their own free time?

Randall Craig, author of Social Media For Business, notes that a workplace cannot do anything of the sort. "The company can't say 'you're not allowed to have this opinion.' They can, however, say, 'you having this opinion and having our name on your profile is something we feel uncomfortable with."

That appears to be the route taken by ColourLovers, as Moynihan removed the company's name from his profile as of Tuesday evening -- though his anti-abortion statements continued.

Craig also points to the importance of having a social media policy in place to prevent just this sort of incident.

"We're all very proud of where we work. But because we want to bask under the glory of the brand umbrella that we work at, it also means that we've got some responsibilities to maintain that. Companies need to say to employees, 'this is how we're going to use social media' and then train employees to make sure they know the rules associated with it."

For dealing with fallout, Craig has a list of steps to take -- with public acknowledgement at the very top. ColourLovers creator Darius A Monsef IV did answer concerns a few hours after the initial tweets, with responses like:

Moynihan eventually wrote "Sorry for the way I responded to some people yesterday. Being passionate about something shouldn't mean disrespecting others," but some commenters on the boycotter's blogs are calling for his resignation.

Do you think one's personal beliefs should affect your professional role? Should consumers wait and see how a company responds before they react? Let us know at @HuffPostCaLiv, or in the comments below.