Sometimes, a social media faux pas is more than embarrassing. Failing to police your online behavior could get you into big trouble at work if you’re not careful. An ill-timed tweet or a thoughtless Facebook post might earn you a stern talking-to from your boss. In the worst-case scenario, a social media blunder might cost you your job.
Everyone’s heard the stories of people who’ve been fired because of their social media screw-ups. But until you find yourself in the hot seat, it’s easy to forget that your actions online may come back to haunt you.
“Social media is now so woven into the fabric of young people’s lives that they forget not everything is suitable to put out there,” Alison Green, a former hiring manager who runs askamanager.org, told Time.
A healthy dose of common sense is usually enough to stop most social media blunders before they start. Yet given our culture of constant sharing, it’s easy for a momentary lapse in judgement to turn into a big problem. Short of shutting down all your profiles, your best approach is to think before you post. That should help you avoid these seven big social media screw-ups, which are potential career killers.
1. Making racist, sexist, or other offensive comments
Posting inflammatory content online is a quick route to a pink slip, a lesson many people have learned the hard way. Back in 2013, PR rep Justine Sacco tweeted an insensitive comment about AIDS just before getting on a plane to South Africa. By the time she landed a few hours later, her job was history and her reputation was toast. That’s how quickly things can spin out of control.
Sacco’s hardly the only person who’s had a career go up in smoke because of an offensive or thoughtless post. In Little Rock, Ark., the owner of travel agency fired an employee for making homophobic comments online. The employee’s remarks were not only offensive, but they were costing the company business.
Policing what an employee says outside of work may seem unfair, no matter how despicable their comments. But a company that ignores those comments may be putting themselves at risk.
2. Complaining about your job
Everyone needs to vent sometimes, but publicly sharing your true feelings about your job on social media can land you in hot water. While valid complaints about working conditions are protected speech in many cases, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), general gripes about your boss probably aren’t.
Employees are allowed to engage in “concerted activity” to improve their pay and working conditions, says the NLRB. So, when a group of construction workers posted a YouTube video sharing their concerns about unsafe working conditions, the NLRB said they were within their rights to do so. But if your complaint is that your job is boring or your boss is a jerk, you should probably keep it to yourself.
“Be very careful what you write,” Kathleen Lucas, labor and employment attorney at Lucas Law Firm in San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Not only can there be consequences, you can really create a problem in your workplace.”
3. Sharing confidential information
Accidentally sharing your company’s secrets online may be easier than you realize. While posting confidential reports and documents is an obvious no-no, even innocent updates may inadvertently reveal information that your employer would prefer to keep private.
Say your company is planning a merger that hasn’t been formally announced yet, but you tweet something that gives away the big news. Or a big deal you’ve been working on falls apart and you post about your disappointment on LinkedIn, even though your bosses would prefer to keep the news under wraps.
“[O]ften employees don’t recognize the crossover between their professional and personal worlds and the ways that seemingly personal updates can reveal business information,” noted Inside Counsel, a magazine for corporate lawyers.
4. Posting something stupid on behalf of your company
It pays to think twice about what you post if you’re in charge of your company’s social media. Just ask the American Apparel employee who tweeted a photo of the Challenger explosion to mark the Fourth of July (it turns out the employee, who was born after 1986, didn’t realize they were sharing a photo of a national tragedy). Or the Houston Rockets employee who posted a tweet with some inappropriate emojis during the playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks (the employee was later fired).
If you’re tweeting or sharing on behalf of your employer, remember that whatever you do reflects on them. While some mistakes are truly innocent, post anything wildly out of line and you’re likely to be shown the door.
5. Sharing when you should be working
Not only does using social media while working make you less productive, it could reflect poorly on you as an employee. Some old-school employers may still look unkindly on any kind of social media activity during the workday. More forgiving bosses are likely to understand that you might occasionally check Twitter from your phone. They may even want you to use your personal accounts to promote the company. But getting too caught up in the online world and ignoring projects at work could spell trouble.
“Are you blogging or Facebooking during work hours when you shouldn’t be? Your boss or a vindictive, catty co-worker can easily catch on, landing you a warning or a meeting with the HR department,” CEO and co-founder of Strikingly.com David Chen told CIO.
6. Posting drunk photos from work gatherings
You and your co-workers hit the bar after a long day at the office, and everyone indulges in a few too many drinks, including your boss. You snap a few goofy picks of everyone and share them on Instagram, not thinking anything of it. That is, until the next day, when your boss sobers up and isn’t so happy that those photos are out there in the world for anyone to see.
When it comes to work gatherings that involve alcohol, remember that the rules are different from hanging out with friends. The best move is to stay sober, but if you do find yourself a little tipsy at an office gathering, try to keep your phone in your pocket.
“In college, getting drunk is rewarded. But when you’re in a workplace, there are different consequences,” Michael Ball, founder of CareerFreshman.com, told NBC News.
7. Broadcasting your job search
Social media is a key tool in the modern-day job search. But if you’re on the hunt for a new gig and your current boss sees that you’ve suddenly connected with half a dozen recruiters on LinkedIn, it could make for an uncomfortable situation at the office. You may find yourself passed over for plum assignments or even first on the list of employees to be let go in the next round of layoffs.
“[Your boss] will assume that you’re unhappy and worst case scenario, may start taking steps to terminate you. Supervisors want employees who are committed to the job, not to a job search,” Andy Teach, the author of From Graduation to Corporation, told Forbes.
That doesn’t mean you should take your job search offline, or give up looking for a new position. After all, you’ll find it easier to get hired if you’re currently employed. You just need to be savvy about your social media moves. Adjusting your LinkedIn privacy settings will help you keep your job search secret from your boss and coworkers.
Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS