It may seem like common sense that you shouldn’t post racist, expletive-laden tweets, but when it comes to social media, common sense often goes out the window.
There’s no shortage of people who’ve suffered consequences over inappropriate posts on social media sites:
In September 2014, an Elgin, Ill. police officer was fired for writing a racially charged post about the Ferguson, Mo. riots on Facebook. In December 2013, a PR executive for IAC, parent company for brands such as Match.com and Vimeo, lost her job after sending a “careless” tweet about AIDS in Africa. And in November 2013, a customer service representative for DTE Energy in Detroit was let go after posting an expletive-filled rant about her job on Facebook.
And while those examples may seem extreme, smaller lapses in judgment are much more common. According to a survey by the legal information website FindLaw.com, 29% of social media users between the ages of 18 and 34 believe a photo or comment they’ve posted might cause a prospective employer to turn them down for a job or a current employer to fire them if they were to see it.
“Social media is becoming an extension of the workplace,” says Janet Ayyad Ismail, a labor and employment attorney for the Dallas law firm Haynes and Boone. “You have the right to go on social media and complain about your job, but you don’t have the right to say whatever you want and keep your job.”
Ismail says the National Labor Relations Act provides employees with the right to engage in speaking freely about the terms of the workplace when it’s a concerted activity.
“If an employee goes on Facebook and complains about their hours and pay, it would be considered a concerted activity if another employee joined in the discussion and echoed the complaint,” says Ismail, but there are limits. “You can’t say things that are untruthful. You can’t disclose trade secrets or confidential information. And you can’t say inflammatory things like, ‘My boss is a jerk.’”
Anything you post on social media should be considered as material included on a job application, says Amy Haug, human resources director for DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
“Employers can now elect to have a social media review with the employment background check process,” she says. “It would be naive to not realize that potential employers can access social media for current and prospective employees. Even if HR doesn’t check social media, it’s nearly impossible to control surfing by coworkers.”
If everyone’s looking, using common sense when posting is the first step. You don’t have to be a fan of Jerry Maguire to know that a midnight thought can end a career, says April Masini, author of the advice column Ask April : “A social media comment that’s full of bravado may seem to show fierceness when shared, but upon a good night’s sleep–and 50,000 views–will instead look like someone who’s trying too hard,” she says. “It actually plays you as weak, and not strong.”
“Day-after remorse” seems to be common; 21% of the FindLaw survey’s social media users say they’ve removed or taken down a photo or other social media posting because they feared it could lead to repercussions with an employer.
Masini advises people to wait until the morning to post anything: “Don’t share on social media late at night,” she says. “Chances are your best decisions come after a good night’s sleep and a morning coffee, not a long day that’s left you running on fumes and a nightcap or two.”
You can also limit who sees your posts though privacy settings. FindLaw.com found that 82% of young social media users pay at least some attention to their privacy settings, and just 6% said they pay no attention and use the platform’s default settings.
But privacy settings aren’t fail-proof. A potential employer could access an applicant’s private social media profile if the applicant and employer share a mutual contact who has access to the applicant’s private content.
“Be mindful of the connections you make on social media,” says Ismail. “Privacy settings may limit the disclosure of information to ‘friends’ or ‘connections,’ but that does not mean that those people will safeguard the information you share.”
If you feel strongly about sharing your thoughts, check out the new social media website Boxego, created to end social media regret, says founder James Birrell. Like an online journal, pictures, videos, and posts that have been shared on Boxego are read-only and cannot be edited, copied, or forwarded.
“Most of us at some point have shared a post on our social media sites and then regretted it,” he says. “We’ve made Boxego private by default which means our users have to actively choose to share a post, hopefully ensuring they won’t share their private moments accidentally.”
Masini says sometimes the best approach is to keep things to yourself: “If in doubt, leave it out,” she says. “There is much more regret over over-sharing, and much less about having not shared.”
When used with caution, social media can present an opportunity to promote yourself, says Haug. “Illustrate your skills, abilities, and interests, such as participation in team activities, or civic and social causes,” she says. “They may be aligned with your current or potential employer, which would be a positive.”
Ismail suggests keeping personal and professional accounts separate. Don’t post work-related information on a Facebook account that was opened to connect with friends and family, for example, and keep your LinkedIn profile free from comments on hot button topics such as politics and religion.
“A lot of people use social media as a forum to rant about whatever topic they wish,” she says. “After the Hobby Lobby decision, for example, people were saying very controversial things without a true understanding of the facts. I would advise against voicing a strong opinion in a public forum.”
Consider social media as a place to build your reputation, says Ismail. “People make judgments about what you say and how you act, and it can affect you in the future,” she says.
“If you’re always complaining about work or using inappropriate language, you risk having people make assumptions about you. Instead, use social media as a way to brand yourself. If your message is always positive and professional it will be an asset and not a source of regret.”