Social media is fun: it is the way we share stories, keep connected with friends and family, and record our (sometimes ridiculous) lives. But increasingly, it can also be damaging: the way you get yourself fired – or the thing that stops you being hired in the first place.
“There are many ways social media can promote or destroy careers,” explains Professor Arne Krokan, a social media expert at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “It is like water on a porous surface, it is difficult to wipe it away once you’ve spilled something; it is almost impossible to keep control of content once it is published online.
“This can be good for building a ‘personal brand’ online, but may affect those who change their behaviour, opinions or political positions over time, and have old or contradictory content retrieved.”
Not considering your professional reputation or your organisation’s rules when tweeting, posting or liking content can have serious repercussions. Even if you didn’t work for that organisation at the time – as Phil Nevile discovered when he was appointed head coach of the England women’s football team in January.
“[Social media] can bring earlier incidents to the spotlight because the internet has everlasting memory,” says Prof Krokan. “These may be issues that make people see the older messages in a new context.”
Just an hour after Nevile was announced his new role, he was forced to delete his Twitter account after tweets from several years ago began being shared widely on social media because they appeared sexist.
Jenny Wotherspoon, social media lecturer at University of Sunderland, says: “I don’t think it’s a case of bad luck that Phil Neville’s old tweets were rediscovered. Just this year there was a similar situation with Toby Young which led to him resigning from his role on the board of the university regulator. And last year journalists found homophobic social media posts by Stormzy that sparked a scandal and led to a public apology.
“For anyone in the public eye there’s always the chance that a journalist or an inquisitive member of the public will go looking for it - and it’s especially easy for them to relocate any tweets they’ve commented on or shared themselves.”
Prof Krokan agrees: “Neville’s case went viral because he is a celebrity, but in principle, everyone is exposed to this same risk.”
Despite Neville’s future being haunted by tweets of the past, his managerial contract runs till 2021. Others are not so lucky. “It brought my career to an end,” says Rachel Burns, 51, from Surrey, who worked as a care home manager in Reigate for 21 years before being dismissed in 2015 over a Facebook post. “Since the dismissal I’ve had no earnings. The incident ruined my health and self-confidence, and has led to deep depression.”
Burns was fired for gross misconduct - a wrongdoing she later admitted at an employment tribunal - after she shared a photograph on her personal Facebook page which showed and named a resident at a singing group.
His family approved of the picture, but Burns was disciplined by her employer for making him identifiable to the public. “They told me what they had found online, put me on special leave, then suspended me,” she says. Burns claims that her contract did not contain social media rules “Guidelines were minimal and they spoke of being wary, but not being afraid, to use social media.”
HuffPost UK spoke to her former employer, Surrey County Council, who said although the code of conduct didn’t explicitly make reference to social media, the misbehaviour was covered by protections on sharing a resident’s identity.
“They spoke of being wary but not being afraid to use social media...'”
Emma O’Leary, an employment lawyer for the ELAS Group, says that you shouldn’t rely on your contract not containing specific social media guidelines. “Even in the absence of a policy, the employer may still be able to take action, including dismissal,” she explains. “The most popular one we see is dismissal for bringing the company’s name into disrepute. If the employer can demonstrate reputational damage to their name then it is likely to result in a fair dismissal.”
Earlier this year, waitress Tamlynn Yoder, 25, claimed she was fired from a steakhouse in Florida after a Facebook post in which she complained about not receiving a tip on a take-out order worth more than $700. The company she worked for did have a strict social media policy.
“Social media is often a spontaneous arena, where moments of mind are translated in visual or verbal terms,” says Krokan. “Those who send them don’t understand the consequences of what they are doing.”
Additional problems can come when people post to groups that they believe have only have a limited audience. “People take part in hidden groups … [and] when such private groups are betrayed or revealed, participation may have consequences for the members, which they did not understand while entering this kind of micro-societies.”
Shropshire chef Laura Goodman was fired earlier this year after claiming she had ‘spiked’ a vegan on a closed Facebook group. When the post was captured in a screenshot and shared outside the group, Goodman had to leave her job and the restaurant suffered a barrage of abuse online and physical threats of violence. She later stated that the post was a misunderstanding.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all have the power to make people’s behaviour ‘go viral’ and, in doing so, catch the attention of their employer. In June 2017 Juli Briskman was fired by her employer in the US, a government contractor, when a picture of Briskman flipping off President Trump’s motorcade went viral. In November, a writer for the official Doctor Who magazine was fired after he used the first letter of each sentence in his column to brand BBC Worldwide “c**ts” – and then someone on Twitter spotted it.
Celebrities are not immune either. Transgender model Munroe Bergdorf lost her gig as a L’Oreal spokesperson after making comments on Facebook. “Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes all white people. Your entire existence is drenched in racism.” L’Oreal said her comments were “at odds” with its values before terminating her contract.
“Everyone is online nowadays so it seems a bit weird if you’re not...'”
For the majority of us, the chances of ending up at the centre of a social media storm are slim. But you still need to be aware that if you want to move job, prospective bosses are likely to snoop around your social media accounts.
Social media activity is increasingly influencing recruitment, warns career coach Victoria McLean: “Figures show that a third of employers have actually turned down job candidates after interview because of their profiles.”
And don’t think just privacy settings will necessarily keep your drunken pictures safe from pyring eyes. “Employers find ways round privacy settings anyway - I’ve heard of someone who got sacked for a law firm for Facebook posts, despite their account being set to friends only,” says McLean.
But the answer is not to delete your social media presence all together, she argues. “I’ve also heard of recruiters who actively won’t hire people who have no social media presence. Everyone is online nowadays so it seems a bit weird if you’re not.”
Employers might not draw the line once they hire you – so it can be worth thinking about the consequences of a post if your boss saw it. That’s particularly the case when it comes to being ill, says Emma O’Leary from ELAS Group. “We see all too often employees claiming they are unfit for work and reporting sickness absence when their social media account tell a very different story,” she says. “Employees with alleged broken legs posting Facebook photos jet skiing abroad.”
Social media also creates opportunities for ‘banter’, she adds – and people are more likely to overstep the mark online. A good rule of thumb is not to say anything that you wouldn’t say to a colleague’s face.
So if you make a gaff should you delete it? Incoming Grazia editor Hattie Brett made headlines earlier this month month when she described this year’s Oscar winners as “so fat” in a tweet which she subsequently deleted – but not before somebody took a screenshot of it.
In a statement to HuffPost UK, Brett said: “When live tweeting the Oscars at a screening party, I wrote something stupid about one of the men I saw on screen.
“I instantly regretted it so deleted the tweet, hoping that, as it was the early hours of the morning, not many people would have witnessed my idiocy. However clearly some did and so I apologize unreservedly for any offense caused.”
“I hope everyone can relate to making a stupid mistake on social media in this always-on digital age we now live in.”
Wotherspoon, says: “There are mixed views about how to handle things once a post has been made, but often deleting the offensive content and an apology is a good way forward - acknowledging any errors or misinterpretations quickly.”
But just because you deleted that late night drunken rant doesn’t mean someone hasn’t already screen-grabbed it and sent it to HR. Instead be mindful about everything you post, even if you think you’re shouting it into an empty room.
Wotherspoon added: “Look out for anything that could be interpreted in any way as racist, sexist, offensive, derogatory or defamatory - taking particular care around comments you intend to be humorous. Other things to look out for are posts that contain anything untrue, anything exaggerated, or anything private.
“Awareness and common sense is key - if it’s offensive or private in any way, it’s probably not worth the risk.”
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