Don’t let social media cost you your job

Posting ill-judged comments about your company or colleagues online could easily cost you your job – whether it’s during work hours or not. Here’s some advice on how to stay on happy terms with your employer without spoiling your social media life.

Question: which of the following Facebook activities could get you the sack?

  1. Sharing sensitive company information.
  2. Having a little moan after a hard day at work.
  3. Posting a photo of yourself enjoying a cold beer.

Answer: all of them! In recent years, nothing has blurred the lines between the private and public spheres quite like social media – with potentially far-reaching consequences for our careers. Thankful­­ly, most of us manage to combine our social media and working lives without suffering any major dramas or resorting to full-blown self-censorship.

Public, not private

Problems tend to arise when people naïvely assume that their online personal life outside of work exists in a private space where they can say whatever they like. In fact the opposite is true: what you say online is actually more public than in the real world, more easily spread and forever available to be used in evidence against you. This doesn’t mean you should start frantically censoring your online persona and activity. There’s no reason to limit how you express your personal life when simply establishing a few reasonable ground rules will, for the most part, keep you out of hot water at work.

Start with social media policy

Your company’s social media policy is the best place to start (in 2014, 79% of companies already had some form of policy in place). A social media policy will typically include guidelines and rules relating to personal usage of social media at work, details of any staff monitoring in place, disciplinary measures for breaching rules, and what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Every employer is different so a policy should have specific examples of what is appropriate and acceptable to your employment situation. If there is no policy in place at your workplace, talk to your union rep if you have one – they can help you work in partnership with your employer to hammer out a policy. Even if you aren’t a union member, there should be nothing to stop you approaching your employer directly. This staff–management collaboration is essential in order for a balanced shared understanding of what is expected of both employees and employer to be arrived at.

Not suitable for work

Since nothing is truly private on social media (an assumption shared in most disciplinary proceedings, by the way) there are some pretty obvious things to not publish, such as confidential business information. Posting and sharing offensive or illegal material (e.g. obscene, sexual, racist or extremist content, etc.) – in or out of work hours – could also easily cost you your job. So far, so obvious. But other important areas require more judgement. Many disciplinary cases around social media have involved ‘bringing the company into disrepute’ – by, say, complaining consistently about company policies, staff or conditions, or behaving in a generally offensive or inappropriate way online, whilst identified (e.g. by context or your profile information) as a company employee. Publishing content viewed as derogatory or disparaging of colleagues, customers or clients is also risky territory. Your employer has a duty to protect its staff from harassment and aggression. This includes cyberbullying (e.g. vindictively posting sensitive personal information about, or threatening comments to, others). This can be every bit as harmful – and punishable – as bullying in the real workplace. (Conversely, avoid sharing too much personal information about yourself that could give other people at work ammunition to bully you.)

Think before you post

Tempting as it might sometimes be to have a dig at your boss, a colleague or work in general – particularly if you are feeling angry – always think before you post. If social media is an extension of the real world, rather than separate for it, a good litmus test is to relate any work-related comments back to the workplace itself:

  • Would I say this out loud at work?
  • (If aimed at a person) would I say it to their face?
  • Is this comment a form of bullying and will broadcasting it cause others to bully them at work?
  • Will this make my colleagues or employer look bad? Will it make them angry?
  • Will this comment make my work life and relationships more or less difficult?
  • Will it get me the sack? (Or, if you are leaving your job anyway) will it prevent me from getting a reference?

Finally, if your judgement is too clouded, try to get a second opinion (though ideally not from an equally drunk friend as last orders is just being called). Better still, sleep on it! There’s more information from WorkSMART on social media and the workplace here.