The big-ticket career gaffes are pretty well-known: Don’t tell off your boss. Don’t quit on the spot—especially if you don’t have another job lined up. And try not to get too sloppy during office happy hour.
Fair enough. But what about the kinds of decisions that don’t take place in the middle of your office—the stuff that happens on a screen, silently, in the pseudo-privacy of the digital sphere? Turns out there are just as many career killers you can fall prey to there, too. And sometimes the consequences of a misstep on social media or in your company’s Slack channel take longer to unfold—which may make them trickier to avoid.
Here’s what you need to know to avoid them.
Maybe your team uses Slack or another team messaging platform to stay connected in real time during the day. Equipped with GIFs and emoji, it probably feels a lot like texting, especially while you’re just direct-messaging with a coworker one-on-one.
But be careful—you aren’t just texting. "When there's something really important to discuss, it is always best to take a walk and hash it out in real life," Dan Teran, cofounder of the office management company Managed by Q, recently explained.
It makes sense why team messaging platforms often become a digital repository for the types of whispered side conversations frustrated employees used to have around the proverbial coffee machine. But they’re fundamentally different. Even if your employer’s platform isn’t set up to let them snoop in on employees’ direct messages, you should treat those the same way you’d treat group channels.
Says Teran’s cofounder Saman Rahmanian, "Slack is a giant water cooler conversation that reflects your company's culture, so make sure not to say anything that you wouldn't be comfortable saying in real life."
After all, if a coworker later decides to share something you’ve typed out just for them, all they have to do is search for it or scroll up.
You know those disclaimers people often add to their Twitter bios, like "Tweets reflect my own views, not my employer’s"? Don’t think that’ll indemnify you. Recent history is littered with people who’ve lost their jobs over 140 ill-considered characters. Here’s just one rueful roundup of employees in a range of positions who were kicked to the curb for indiscretions committed on Twitter—the internet is brimming with tales like these.
Sometimes the backlash is immediate. When a PR exec tweeted an insensitive joke in 2013 before boarding an international flight, she landed hours later to find tens of thousands of people calling for her head—and her job, which she ultimately lost (the New York Times recounted her experience of the months that followed). It might not be fair to judge someone’s character on the basis of a single tweet, and plenty have argued that social media, and Twitter in particular, is disturbingly fertile ground for public-shaming rituals.
But fairly or not, it’s a good bet that you will be judged on what you post to social media—even if not right away. Always assume that what goes online lives forever. Even if it’s not the first thing Google coughs up when someone searches for your name, it can be found eventually—by a vengeful colleague looking to dig up dirt on you, a hiring manager doing due diligence, or even completely by accident.
"Old opinions expressed on social media become important in a new context," one unnamed Republican researcher told Time last year, amid a spate of campaign-staff purges due to incriminating, but not recent, tweets. "The challenge is then do you hire that person or not? All of it is subjective." You don't want to gamble your career on someone's future judgment call.
As remote work policies multiply, it’s become common for people to use their own devices for work purposes—shooting off a work email from your smartphone or churning out that big quarterly report on your personal laptop. That flexibility often makes employees’ lives easier, but there’s still reason to think twice about eroding the border between personal tech and professional use.
"It's unlikely an employer would ever want access to your personal info in the normal course," technology attorney Mitzi Hill told Fast Company earlier this year, and it "might not have a right to page through your photos if you simply make work calls from the road." But the legal landscape on this question is far from settled, and that alone puts employees in a vulnerable position.
The reasons why—and the levels of actual risk involved—vary considerably, but most of the consequences are things few people think much about and so don’t take precautions against. If, for instance, your employer gets hit with a lawsuit, any devices you use for work could be scoured. More common is if there’s a data breach at your company (or if it has reason to fear one), your employer may need to wipe your personal gadgets to protect valuable information assets—a provision that many companies are scrambling to write into "bring your own device" policies.
You may even be putting your earnings on the line by working from your personal laptop if, for instance, you’re paid hourly and your employer—not too keen to pay you overtime—notices you keep logging in to polish off work emails at 11 p.m.
These situations may sound rare or marginal to most employees’ working lives, but as corporate cybersecurity concerns grow (which they are—and fast), personal device use is likely to quietly become a more perilous activity.
And like many of the most jeopardizing digital choices you can make on the job, it’s one you probably do unthinkingly. So why not give it some thought now, before the future you has reason to regret that you didn't?