Avoiding Social Media Slip-Ups at Work

by Julie Rains on 17 March 2011 6 comments
Photo: Stephi 2006

You can get fired for complaining about work on Facebook.  

A woman in New York lost her job with a private emergency response company after she allegedly called her boss names on Facebook. Later she received a settlement after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) argued that her status updates were protected free speech. (See Social Media in Organizations' article for further discussion of this case.)

It's good news that employers are taking notice that they can't stop social-media conversations. Don't think that anything goes, though. Keep in mind that most states operate under employment-at-will rules, meaning that your employer can dismiss you for no official reason (and your boss doesn't have to mention specific slip-ups, though many companies will require documentation of progressive discipline).

Using common sense will keep you out of trouble most of the time. But even the smartest, savviest people can stumble. Think about these suggestions to avoid regrets.

Respect Your Company and Everyone Else on the Planet

Your perspective may not be shared by your employer, your colleagues, or your customers. Your attempts at humor may fail. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried lost his job with Alflac (he was the voice of the duck) when he tweeted jokes about Japan in the aftermath of the tsunami tragedy. Closer to home (figuratively and literally), a middle school teacher was suspended for her remarks about students on Facebook. (See also: When Your Employer Dumps You)

Avoid Mentioning Your Job-Seeking Status to Your Employer

Don't announce your intention of finding a new position and leaving your employer by activating "Career Opportunities" or "Job Inquiries" in the "Opportunity Preferences" in your LinkedIn settings. Stay away from similar status updates and conversations on your other networks. You will still be approachable by a recruiter or hiring manager.

Don’t Be Deceptive to Get Information

No one (okay, almost no one) starts a work day with the intent of being deceptive. It's just that if you are in the middle of research and have located the mother lode of information, pesky registration walls and privacy shields on social media sites get in the way. You may be doing legitimate research: conducting a background check on an applicant, verifying the capabilities of a vendor, or qualifying a prospective customer. Don't misrepresent your position or impersonate someone else to get access to a website and gather information, author and social media expert Kathi Browne (@cleverkibitzer) advises in her book Taking on Twitter.

Even those who will say impersonation is wrong may violate their own standards. That is what happened to actor Jesse Eisenberg, who expressed annoyance that others have pretended to be him on Facebook. Ironically, he impersonated NPR host Peter Sagal when he did research for The Social Network.

Stay Calm and Be Discreet

You never know who is going to eavesdrop on your conversation. Last week, as I approached the reception counter to pay for a haircut and schedule a next appointment, the office manager and an employee were griping. The manager stopped and told me that, as a rule, she did not rant about customers. I reassured them that it was okay to complain (to me), as I understood that some people are overly demanding (okay, I said "crazy"). The manager continued venting about "customers" who were actually non-paying family members monopolizing the stylist's schedule during a particular week.

Not everyone grasps the context, hears the entire conversation, or shows empathy for frustration and anger. In Massachusetts, a firefighter was fired for Facebook posts, which allegedly contained complaints, rants, and slurs. In North Carolina, a waitress was fired for complaining about a bad tip. Don’t slay your coworkers, complain about customers, or rail against your boss online. Kathi recommends that you "Avoid posting or tweeting in an emotionally charged moment."

Don't Share Too Much (Company) Information

Intellectual property, trade secrets, and proprietary information are risky areas for businesses. More than 50% of organizations that participated in a survey conducted by Proofpoint (an online compliance and security company) are “concerned” or “very concerned” about potential data loss through social networking and media sharing sites.

Just because you are not posting the Colonel's recipe (KFC's blend of spices for its fried chicken) on your blog doesn't mean that you are being careful with sensitive information. You can easily reveal a customer list or exclusive vendor relationships based on your LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends, and those you are following on Twitter. Likewise, your project updates on your blog and your accomplishments on your LinkedIn profile may contain confidential information that your company would rather not share with its competitors.

Get Your Hands on Your Company’s Social Media Policy

Does your company even have a social media policy? Find out through a quick search on your company's main website or its intranet. It may be a standalone page or embedded in the employee handbook or code of conduct and ethics.

Policy rules may be relaxed (e.g., Zappo's "Be Smart" policy) or repressive (e.g., forbidding Facebook). The best are expertly crafted, championing freedom of expression while protecting company rights. Check out Fast Company's Corporate Social Media Policies: The Good, the Mediocre, and the Ugly and Social Media Governance for examples.

Your boss, the HR folks, and the legal department at work may be clueless about social media. To be safe, think about all types of interaction, social networking, media sharing, and more: Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, blogs, and message board discussions.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Taking on Twitter: Strategic Tweeting for Small Business by Kathi Browne for review.

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Meg Favreau's picture

Have any readers ever had bad social media experiences at work?

I was listening to a radio interview a couple of days ago where they were talking about employers who make job interviewees sign into their Facebook accounts during the interviews to make there isn't anything bad that they've hidden from public view. Creepy!

Guest's picture

Thanks for referencing the piece I wrote about the settlement of the NLRB case in Connecticut, Julie.

I also recently published a post entitled "Social Media Policies: Necessary but not Sufficient," which explores the topic further from the employer perspective (http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsPolicyPost).

Your readers may also be interested in the white paper I wrote entitled "Social Screening: Candidates - and Employers - Beware" (http://tiny.cc/SocialScreeningPaper), as well as a video segment in which I was interviewed entitled "Social Media and the Workplace" (http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsTribU).

Courtney Hunt
Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

Guest's picture

Meg: Though it's usually well intentioned, the practice you mention is inappropriate and not sustainable. I recently wrote a blog post about the similar practice of asking candidates for their login credentials. It's entitled "Digital Era Employment Practices Under Fire - Again!" and can be accessed via http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsACLUpost.

Courtney Hunt
Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

Julie Rains's picture

Potential employers trying to access private accounts -- by using straightforward means or otherwise -- is unwise, creepy, and unsustainable. At some point, what is acceptable and what isn't will be fairly clear to all; in the meantime, there will be some confusion and battles.

Meg Favreau's picture

Courtney, I'm glad to hear that. The guest on the show I listened to implied that there wasn't much employees could do other than refuse and then not get the job.

Guest's picture

BTW, Julie, I'm sharing this piece with the SMinOrgs Community. In addition to offering good tips, it also provides some "what were they thinking" social media screw-ups of which I was previously unaware. More entries for the Digital Hall of Shame...

Courtney