Recently we’ve seen figures, public and private, lose their jobs and sometimes even their careers over things they’ve posted not only in the present but the past on social media. While public figures may have the resources to put up a fight, those in the private arena often don’t, and so the double-edged sword of attention can be particularly sharp. Once average people attract the all-seeing eye, never forgetting and unforgiving memory of the Internet, they find the weight of public opinion brought down upon them; with all the consequences - positive and negative - such attention may bring.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: The First Amendment or Freedom of Speech protections refers to government interference only, not employers, or random trolls on the Internet, who may have taken offense to your post. Once a post is made public, all claims of privacy go away, you can’t claim confidentiality when you post publicly on an open platform. You can say what you want, but you can’t stop other people from commenting on it or attempting to hold you accountable for what you post. This includes boycotts, mocking you or even demanding you lose your job. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from accountability.
So while Bob, the Mayor of Mayorville, NJ, can’t infringe on your right to free speech, Bob Mayor, CEO of Mayorville Cosmetics doesn’t have such restrictions. He can fire you for posting something on your blog he doesn’t like. To go further, he should fire you if he feels you posted something which brings terrible publicity or financial risk to the company. Your freedom of speech protections doesn’t protect your job or entitle you to be employed.
Put yourself in the position of Human Resources and finding your promising candidate is displaying drug paraphernalia in every Instagram shot or threatens to sue everyone who slights him on Facebook (he has a list, you know). He can be the greatest accountant you’ve ever seen, but his online persona tells a different story. Which is the correct version? The well-spoken professional or the person who has shall we say ‘outdated’ opinions on gender equality in the workforce? Your office is 70% female; how do you think that’s going to work out in regards to office morale and company culture, if they get wind of his postings? What about your clients?
In the age of personal responsibility, being a provocateur is not without risk, and that’s the way it should be. People should be willing to stand by their opinions and if they are only posting to get a reaction, then who is to blame, if the response they want isn’t the reaction they receive?
Let’s not use the refrain of PC culture to minimize the impact social media can have on the business success or try and hand-wave away the reality of social media’s effect on society. Once you post something online, issues of privacy, speech, behavior, as well as employment are now subject to public scrutiny, ridicule and shunning. That’s the reality. Is it fair, perhaps not, but when has life ever been fair?
While there are cries of political correctness run amok when people post something that goes sideways and are held accountable for it, these same people forget that the primary responsibility of any business is its survival. This means if an employee posts something that places the business in jeopardy or bad light, then the company has the responsibility to protect itself; including terminating the employee who made the post. After all, a business’ reputation is based on the people they hire and how they may interact with customers.
Look, it’s no secret that the first thing that a competent HR department does when they consider a person for a job is search that person’s social media accounts for any red flags. It’s just a smart business practice and helps prevents hiring what looks like a good fit on paper, but is a bad fit in practice. Besides, it’s a lot easier to pre-screen a potential employee, than terminate one once they have been hired. The last thing any employer wants is an employee who is going to be a problem, and by examining their social media, potential problems can be screened for. A person’s social media presence can often tell you more about the real them than any resume, cover letter and interview could.
The larger question is, of course, should you as an employer be concerned about what your team members post on their time on their public social media accounts? Should you hold a team member accountable for what they post during their off-time? It’s not legal or unethical to view their social media, any more than it is to look at what your ex is up to if it’s set to public.
This is a not a matter of could you look, but should you? That is a question only you can answer for your business.
Finally, it’s a common misconception that many team members believe that their posting is private and should be treated as such even when they air them out in a public forum. The reality is something different, as once you post, it becomes part of the public sphere. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, there is no longer a truly defined line between public and private life. The new normal is never to assume the presumption of privacy and don’t post anything you wouldn’t want anyone to see.
Moreover, an employer can’t be expected to ignore your ‘dirty laundry’ if you hang in front of their, and more importantly, their customers’ windows. To a certain extent, social media is the exposure of self. Make sure you’re willing to live with the version of yourself you’re sharing.
If you happen to be the employer in this equation, you need to make sure that your policies for social media conduct are communicated to your employees clearly and immediately, and you need to abide by them yourself. A survey conducted by Paychex details why. While 85 percent of recruiters refer to a candidate’s Facebook as a part of the hiring process, 60 percent of applicants check the profiles of the people they will be interviewing with in return. While 79 percent of job applicants admitted that finding something questionable didn’t lead them to turn down an opportunity, do you really want to risk that the right candidate is in the 21 percent?
You need to consider how your online persona will influence your potential customers as well. Your social media activity can effectively be seen as an extension of your business’ culture. If you aren’t careful, a poorly-worded post could easily alienate a great number of your audience.
Are you reviewing all the social media content of your potential hires? Let us know in the comments below.