It was only a few years ago that a prospective Cisco employee tweeted something she’d probably regret for the rest of her life: “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.”
Everyone knows that nothing on the Internet is private, and the user was fired for tweeting without even having the job: the post was brought to the attention of the hiring manager and the job offer was promptly rescinded.
But that’s not the only example of social media getting chatty users into hot water. A Taco Bell employee didn’t think twice about posting a photo of himself urinating on food while at work, just as a staffer at an assisted living facility felt comfortable posting an image of a client in the bathroom. (I wish I was making this up).
Getting fired for posting on social media doesn’t always look this obvious either. Recent cases of employees getting in trouble for recommending former colleagues on LinkedIn have popped up, highlighting the ease of using social media posts to violate company policy (which in this case was rules against providing referrals) without even attempting to break any laws.
So how serious is this problem and how likely are you to get fired over a Facebook post?
The short answer is: it’s very serious and getting terminated depends on a few factors. For the most part, getting fired for social media is definitely a real possibility if you violate a company policy, show confidential information or share a social media post that shows something offensive happening in the workplace.
Free speech doesn't apply to private employers, but certain legal protections may be granted depending on the context of the complaint. For example, Kashmir Hill writes at Forbes that the deciding factor between a fire-able social media offense and simply a bad decision may depend on something called “protected concerted activity,” which the National Labor Relations Board defines as employees’ “right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions, with or without a union.”
In real life, that means employees talking with each other about their work environment and its challenges; in social media, it’s the number of people digitally participating in work-related conversation. Which essentially means that if it’s just one employee posting negatively about the company, it may be OK to get rid of him/her; whereas if a group of employees does the same thing (via shares or additional commentary), it could be a more complex situation.
Plus, most jobs these days are “at-will,” meaning the employer doesn’t technically need a reason to fire an employee (outside of discrimination, of course).
Understanding the changing communication landscape, companies are being more clear—and, in some cases, more aggressive—about what employees can and cannot do on social media.
The exact approach varies from company to company, but many now have social media policies in place. Some directives require employees to state in their social profiles where they work and that their posts/tweets/comments do not represent the company’s view. The policies also require appropriate disclosure when employees participate in forums or leave a review, as not doing so can suggest shady tactics on behalf of the company.
A racy or offensive social media post is just one of many reasons for getting fired, but the best part is that it’s easy to minimize the risk: just don’t do it. If you simply must post about work and can’t live otherwise, just make sure you’d be OK with having it brought to your attention the next time you set foot in your office.