An interview with Marleen Potgieter – Online Course Lecturer of CityVarsity Online’s Social Media Pitfalls Course
Tell us more about Marleen Potgieter?
I am a lawyer of some 30 years. I specialised in Labour Law in 1993, did a Higher Diploma in Labour Law; practised as a partner in what is now Webber Wentzel, then set off on my own to run my consultancy specialising in Employment Equity and management training. I have written two books, on Unfair Discrimination and Social Media, as well as write for many other publications like Fleet Street etc.
What encouraged you to study law and what about social media law drew you to it?
I studied law because when on Rotary Exchange in the US in 1978, I stayed with the lawyer who defended Spiro Agnew of the Richard Nixon Watergate notoriety and this really piqued my interest. I wrote on Social Media Law because so many of my clients were dealing with tricky cases relating to Social Media.
Talk to us about your book ’Social Media in the Workplace’.
It is a practical approach to dealing with some of the legal principles. I explore how these legal principles are not new – they have just been given a different spin with the advent of Social Media. The book first looks at some international cases (with the focus on the US and UK – as it has been around longer in these countries and there have been many more cases), then I look at some South African cases. I end with some practical guidelines on what employers can do to protect themselves. I also give tips to the individual on what to be careful of.
You are working in the field of employment law. Tell us how your career has evolved since studying law and about the work you’re now doing.
My legal background laid down the foundations for problem solving and developing a certain way of thinking. However, since starting Equity Works some 17 years ago, my approach has been more practical. Instead of inviting clients to my office – I now go to clients and this gives me much more insight into their businesses. When you walk into a business, you can quickly sense the vibe – do people make eye-contact, is it a happy place, or does it weigh heavily on your shoulders? My focus has been more on empowering clients to avoid trouble, rather than doing damage control – which is what most legal cases end up doing. I would rather train managers on how to positively manage people than teach them how to take a case to the CCMA – by this time it is too late and the relationship has broken down. When I was practicing, I found the system of law so adversarial. I thought there has to be a better way to do this – and started to train my clients on the law and how to make it work for you. This made the jump to a consultancy so much easier. Also, because I was specialising in Employment Equity, the act requires you to do an audit of your workplace. In doing your audit – you uncover all that is wrong with the business. Instead of letting this derail you, companies should see this as valuable business information that you can fix. You poll the mood of your staff and you know exactly where you stand with them.
What about Social Media inspired you to write this course?
It is such a large topic and fascinating. In writing my book, I very quickly go derailed and off-topic to the extent that I would end up at the end of the day in a completely different direction to where I had started out. This intrigued me more and more. To extrapolate the essence of what is important to the employment relationship was what fascinated me. To have to truncate it into an online course was even more challenging. It is a crystallisation of the principles, spelled out in a way that the lay-person can understand and put to practical use.
Tell us about your Social Media Pitfalls Online Course.
The course is an attempt to make sense of the vast amount of information there is out there, in a manner that is user-friendly and accessible the ordinary employer and employee for their protection. As we have seen increasingly, it is so easy to get into a whole heap of trouble very quickly, that it is best to arm yourself with knowledge of how to avoid the pitfalls in the first place. It takes a lifetime to build a brand and a reputation. It takes 140 characters and 30 seconds to throw it away completely. It is no longer even possible to leave the country to protect yourself – the damage is potentially worldwide.
What excites you about the future of Social Media Law here in SA?
It can be used as a very powerful tool for us to get to know each other better and to enhance co-operation and conversation. Provided that people stay respectful, it can be a great way to ask the questions we have been too scared to ask about each other in the past. However, I do believe we should develop an etiquette of what is polite and respectful. There is too much anger and hatred out there. We need to learn how to use the tool in a manner that builds bridges, not break them down.
Any advice to prospective learners that want to attempt your course?
They must read the questions carefully. As every school teacher and lecturer has ever told you – read the question thoroughly and make sure you understand it. If you don’t – communicate. There is a whole team of people willing to help you.