The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution secures your right to free speech, but only from Congress. The amendment establishes limits as to the laws Congress may pass that abridge your freedom of speech, but it offers no protection should your employer send you packing over a post or tweet. A variety of state laws and National Labor Relations rules may offer some protection under certain circumstances, but an ounce of prevention is worth a metric ton of cure when it comes to your job and career.
The attitudes of younger professionals are particularly dangerous. While many older folks have a tendency to approach their social media activities with a bit of caution, today's young adults just entering the workforce have grown up with the transparency of the social era. They tend to think everything and anything is in bounds when it comes to "personal" social profiles. They are wrong, and there is a trail of lost jobs and broken careers to prove it.
Here are seven ways people have found to lose their jobs because of their activities in social media:
- Post Insensitive Ethnic and Racial Comments: Just yesterday, Voula Papachristou, a Greek Olympic athlete set to compete in London, was bounced from the team. Her offense was a single tweet; a bad, racially insensitive joke: "With so many Africans in Greece, at least the West Nile mosquitos will be eating food from their own home." This 23-year-old woman has spent her entire life training for an opportunity she will likely have only once in her lifetime, and she trashed it in the time it took to broadcast a stupid 140-character tweet. It is likely 2012 was Papachristou's only Olympic opportunity--in 2008 she competed in the World Junior Championships and in 2016 she may very well be too old to make the team--and now she will be watching the 2012 Olympics on television rather than representing her country. The head of the Hellenic Olympic Committee said something every employee should heed: "She made a mistake and in life we pay for our mistakes."
- Post Party Pix: We all love to share photos of good times, but you should consider potential ramifications before uploading that photo of you doing a beer bong. In 2009, teacher Ashley Payne resigned after an anonymous email claimed that a student had seen her vacation shots, including ten pictures of her drinking alcohol, and that this set a bad example. In 2008, 18-year-old New England Patriots cheerleader Caitlin Davis was fired after some offensive party photos appeared on social sites. Combining the first and second bullet points in this list, Davis was seen leaning over a passed-out friend whose body had been covered with graffiti that included swastikas and comments such as "I'm a Jew."
- Use Social Media After Calling In Sick: If you call in sick, just remember that your boss and coworkers use Facebook and Twitter, too. In 2009, a Swiss insurance worker lost her job after surfing Facebook while off sick. She told her boss that she needed to miss work because she was unable to work in front of a computer but was then seen posting on Facebook. (She claimed it was on her iPhone from bed, but her employer was not buying it.) In 2007, intern Kevin Colvin told his boss that he needed to miss work due to a family emergency, and then he posted a photo of himself partying in a Tinkerbell outfit. If there is anything worse than getting fired because your employer catches you in a lie, it might be doing so while having your embarrassing photo shared worldwide.
- Post Evidence Of Rule Violations: Breaking your employer's rules is dumb; doing so and then sharing the evidence on a social network is insanely stupid. Just last week, three employees at a Mayfield Heights, Ohio Burger King lost their jobs because one thought it would be funny to post a photo standing in tubs of lettuce. The picture was uploaded to 4chan, an online community, and 15 minutes later community members had tracked down the restaurant location using the GPS data encoded in the file. This is hardly the first time Burger King has faced this sort of problem--in 2008, several employees of another Ohio Burger King lost their jobs after a video appeared online of an employee taking a bath in the restaurant's kitchen sink. And in 2009, two Domino's employees not only were canned but also arrested after posting a YouTube video of themselves despoiling customers' food. (Imagine the luck they will have landing jobs in the future, since they not only have to admit they were fired but also reveal they have police records). Even well intended posts can get you terminated if they violate employer policies. Earlier this year a restaurant dismissed an employee after he posted an image of a receipt revealing a particularly bountiful tip from quarterback Peyton Manning. The server obviously intended this as a positive shout-out to Manning's generosity, but as the restaurant owner noted, "This goes against every policy we have."
- Dump on Your Employer in Social Media: The people who pay our paychecks tend to get a tad grumpy when we return the favor by bad-mouthing them publicly. Biting the hand that feeds you is never a good idea. Just ask Connor Riley, who found a way to lose a job before she even started. Upon receiving an offer, the 22 year old tweeted, "Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work." Cisco promptly rescinded the job offer to save her the effort of making that difficult decision. And, proving you are never too big or too famous to be canned for shaming your employer, Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson lost his job after attacking his coach and fans in a vulgar tirade on Twitter. Fans petitioned for his release, and the team complied. In another NFL incident, Dan Leone, an employee of the Philadelphia Eagles stadium, lost his job after criticizing the team on Facebook for losing safety Brian Dawkins to the Denver Broncos. He called the team "retarted" and his employer called him "unemployed." (Leone did, however, receive two tickets to the Broncos/Eagles game, courtesy of Dawkins.)
- Embarrass Your Employer in Social Media: We all know that in the age of social media, an organization's reputation is one of its most vital assets. No surprise, then, that companies seek to protect those assets from employee lapses. An Arizona Daily Star reporter tweeted a criticism of a headline in his newspaper and was asked to refrain from social media activities that could damage the paper's reputation. Later, after a local TV station complained when the reporter mocked the spelling in one of its tweets, the reporter was dismissed. He appealed, but the National Labor Relations Board upheld his termination. Those of us who are responsible for corporate social media are in an especially risky position when it comes to protecting (or harming) our employers' brands. Last year, an employee not only lost his job but got his agency fired when he mixed up his personal and corporate Twitter accounts, resulting in Chrysler tweeting, "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to (expletive) drive." And, in yet another example that demonstrates even celebrities are not immune to these dangers, comedian Gilbert Gottfried lost his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck when he posted truly insensitive tweets following Japan's tragic tsunami. One such tweet read, "I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, 'They'll be another one floating by any minute now.'" A bad joke is not when no one laughs--it's when you lose your paycheck.
- Insult Your Employer's Customers: Everyone can get frustrated with customers every now and then, and we all know the customer is not always right, no matter how the old saying goes. It is the way you choose to deal with those natural frustrations that can mean the difference between your job and unemployment. Two years ago, 22-year-old server Ashley Johnson stayed late to wait on a table and then felt slighted by the small tip. She took to Facebook with a vulgar post calling the customers cheap and mentioned the restaurant by name, resulting in her dismissal. People took to the restaurant's Facebook page to protest the action, but the company stood tall (and did the right thing), noting "As an employer, it is necessary to enforce policies for the benefit of all our hardworking employees and valued customers... We welcome your comments, but please keep it clean!" In 2008, Virgin Atlantic fired 13 cabin crew members after they posted messages on Facebook referring to passengers as "chavs," an insult used in the U.K. And back in Facebook's infancy, seven employees of a Canadian grocery store chain lost their jobs for deriding customers in a Facebook group. One employee said, "instead of talking in a locker room, we are talking on this." (Note: Unless your locker room is broadcast to the world and contains a search function, it is safer than Facebook.)
- Be aware of the risks.
- Do not post anything you would not say to your boss (or your mom).
- Never, ever criticize or make "funny" observations about your boss, your employer or your coworkers.
- Know your employer's policies about communication, social media and protecting customer data.
- Filter yourself--if you have a moment's doubt, don't post it!
- Protect your friends--if they are doing something stupid on a social network, tell them quickly.
- And if you fear you are unable to filter yourself sufficiently to protect your job, build a social media firewall between you and your employer:
- Lock up your account and make it private
- Remove your employer from your Facebook and Twitter profiles
- Separate your LinkedIn account from your other social media profiles
- Do not post frequent check-ins at your employer's location
- Do not friend and follow your boss and coworkers
These are not blanket recommendations, because my social media experience has been very positive, resulting in strong working relationships and an enhanced career. But if you fear, in a moment of weakness, you will let a sarcastic post fly or post an embarrassing picture after one too many, then take action now. We live in a world where your missteps can haunt you forever (Thanks Google!), and there is no "fixing it" after the damage is already done to your career.