Google “getting fired because of social media,” and many examples will sift right to the top. From low-profile, like one woman who used her Facebook on the clock to make fun of ugly scarves sold in the gift shop she worked in, to high-profile, like infamous PR executive Justine Sacco who tweeted a joke about AIDS before a flight to Africa, social media gaffes can cost jobs and even ruin careers.
As individual politics get more and more divided, this can get even trickier. Some feel an uncomfortable pressure to post their political opinions to social media. Some refuse to because of their careers or for other reasons. And some feel that speaking up on social media is an important part of activism.
So how can you walk that line of staying true to yourself, but also not dashing your chances at your dream career because of a tweet or Facebook post that doesn’t go over well? The key is to be mindful of your rights, but also take responsibility for your social presence.
If you feel strongly about maintaining a digital space for yourself to voice your opinions, make sure that only the people you want seeing your posts are seeing them. On Facebook, lock down your privacy so only friends can see your Timeline. And then pay attention to who you add as a friend.
A case study in Harvard Business Review pointed out that your privacy settings are null and void if you’ve friended your boss or your clients—both types of people could be put off by a political opinion or a joke, especially one at your company’s expense.
A lot of professionals who have a public Twitter or Instagram account for work will maintain separate, private profiles on both platforms. If you decide not to split it up and keep your Twitter and Instagram accounts public, think carefully before you post. If you identify yourself as an employee of your company in your bio, include a line that explains that any opinions you post are yours and not those of your employer.
That might sound silly, but if you’re affiliating yourself with a company on a public social media profile, you are opening yourself, and the company, up to scrutiny. In 2017, a man’s joke about running over protesters of President Donald Trump with his truck two weeks after protester Heather Heyer was hit by a car and killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, made it back to his employer, leading to his dismissal.
If you want your public social accounts to remain unfiltered, consider removing your employer from your bio and refraining from posting about work to make it even more clear your thoughts are yours and yours alone. But that’s not to say cutting public ties would prevent you from being dinged at work for your social posts.
When posting to any social media platform, it might help to think of all of it as potentially public. Remember that anyone can take a screenshot or copy and pass on your post without your knowledge.
When you’re applying for a new job, consider making all of your social accounts private. According to a survey by Career Builder, 60 percent of employers use social media to screen hopefuls, a percentage that has been growing steadily over the past decade. It might be worth it to add “social media lockdown” to your job search checklist.
Review your company’s policy surrounding social media, and ask questions of HR if there’s anything in the policy that’s unclear. Because a lot has changed in the social media landscape relatively quickly, the official policy might not be as specific as it should be. Make sure you understand the expectations clearly.
Then, ask your manager about their rules. Sometimes an individual team within a company will have different rules than the company overall, especially if that team does outward-facing work. If your doing your job requires political objectivity, posting political opinions to social media accounts not only harms your credibility and diminishes your career prospects, it harms your entire organization.
You should also understand your rights. Not every social media offense is fireable under the law. Some online speech is protected.
The National Labor Relations Board has released guidelines for what you legally can and cannot be fired for when it comes to social media activity. Calling your boss a name on your Facebook page? Not a good idea. But calling out your company for poor working conditions? It could be protected.
Employer social media policies “are found to be unlawful when they interfere with the rights of employees under the National Labor Relations Act, such as the right to discuss wages and working conditions with coworkers,” said the NLRB when it dropped its most recent review of social media cases.
When social media is used as a forum to discuss workplace issues with coworkers, the law offers employees more protection.
In 2009, a Connecticut paramedic was fired from her job for questioning her boss’ mental stability and calling him “a scumbag as usual” on her Facebook, according to Above the Law. Other people joined in the discussion.
The NLRB filed a complaint with the ambulance company because of the paramedic’s dismissal. The organization said the company’s social media policy that prohibited employees from posting anything negative about the company or other employees was too broad and encroached on employees’ right to discuss “the terms and conditions of their employment with others,” according to CNN.
The ambulance company “agreed to change its Internet policy, as part of a settlement that fundamentally changes the consequences of poor Facebook judgment,” wrote Christopher Danzig about the case for Above the Law.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.