Social media and the fine line between personal and professional opinion

To tweet or not to tweet. That is the question.

Something as simple as 140 characters can make the difference between being employed or not employed.

Just ask Justine Sacco, a communications executive who was fired – unbeknownst to her – from InterActive Corporation during a flight to Africa because of a tweet she posted before taking off.

Think before you tweet.

Social media history is littered with other notorious examples… the Denver Post’s Avalanche writer Adrian Dater was fired after a tirade of inappropriate Tweets and direct messages to women.

A Texas teacher was fired for “racially charged” tweets about the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri.

In 2011, an 18-year-old Buckingham Palace guard was fired ahead of the royal wedding after a Facebook post on Kate Middleton, and in 2010 a CNN Middle East Senior Editor was fired after 20 years with the news network for a tribute tweet about the death of Hezbollah leader.

A marketing agency’s employee representing Chrysler online was dismissed after he made derogatory remarks about the traffic in Detroit on the company’s twitter account instead of his own.

Closer to home, three Toronto firefighters lost their jobs after posting inappropriate content to their personal Twitter and Facebook accounts.

These are all real life examples of people who can blame social media for losing their jobs and if asked about it, their answers would probably have one thing in common: they are all more careful about what they say, share, retweet or ‘like’.

Social media is a communications and social interaction medium that continues to rapidly evolve.  There are minimal hard and fast rules, and mistakes are often made in the grey areas where people assume they’re using their personal social media accounts so they are free to say whatever is on their mind. After all, isn’t everyone entitled to an opinion?

The answer when it comes to social media is – no.

The lines between professional and personal opinions on social media are becoming increasingly blurry. What you share on your personal social media accounts can sometimes reflect negatively on your employer, placing your job security in jeopardy. Declarations like “retweets are not endorsements” and “opinions are my own” are also no longer enough to protect employees from placing their employer in a position where their reputation is being questioned all because of who they employ.

For employers, the need to develop and implement social media policies for staff has never been greater. In most cases, employers want to have engaged and socially active teams who positively represent the organization in the online social space.

But with increased means of communication and social media outlets becoming the first point of public interaction, organizations must have a legal framework and a guideline to protect themselves and their employees from the risk of a social media ‘incident’ caused by an employee’s outburst, photos, miscommunication or any other offensive actions online.

Social media policies do not only serve as protection for an organization against legal action, they also provides clear guidelines for employees to understand what is expected of them as they engage and create conversations online.

Employed or not, and regardless what the social media policies of an employer are, employees must create their own profile that is controversy-free when it comes to the online world. To do so, there are four simple guidelines that employees should always follow to avoid becoming jobless anytime soon.

  1. Think before Tweeting

There are a few questions an employee must ask themselves before sending that Tweet: Would I prefer my family or boss not read see it? Could it be perceived negatively? Is this a controversial topic? Does my employer have any link to this topic?

If yes, then they are likely better off not posting it at all. In most cases, social media actions are permanent (deleting isn’t a real option – these things live on) so employees should think twice before they post anything that could come back to haunt them in the future.

  1. Tweeting is a responsibility

Tweeting is attributed to the person posting the tweet and retweets can be seen as endorsements or a belief in the other person’s thoughts.  Employers can hold employees accountable for what is posted on their profile – and so will the law.

By participating in social media, people are speaking as an individual and should not say anything that links back to their employer. Using first person singular can assist with drawing the line but ultimately it’s the content of the post that matters.

  1. Confidentiality

Employees will be privy to certain information that typically should not be shared or communicated outside of their organization. Apart from legally confidential information about their company, information about colleagues, personal data or work photographs should be posted with caution, or not at all.

Even a location check–in for company events or meetings can be a grey area. Facebook news feeds, even with all the privacy measures in place, are not an appropriate place to discuss work-related activities.

  1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

An employee’s behavior online should reflect their professionalism and respect for their employer. If employees keep a respectful tone, and avoid social media posts that are inconsistent with their organization’s values, they’ll be able to navigate the online world without incident. The rule of thumb should be if you wouldn’t share it in person at the office, you probably shouldn’t share it online.