We’ve heard the stories: A waitress is fired for tweeting a racist comment about customers; a doctor is fired for suggesting on Facebook that Michelle Obama resembles a monkey. Almost daily, there are tales of employees oversharing on social media and paying for it with their jobs.
While it might be satisfying to witness instances in which people’s prejudices against people of color are swiftly addressed—especially considering that there’s often no justice for worse transgressions—the trend of firing employees for their social media posts should give those who live and breathe on social media pause.
What’s next? If your boss doesn’t like that left-leaning think piece you shared about how President-elect Donald Trump may ruin the country, does she have the right to fire you? Black Twitter has created funny and, in some cases, controversial and outspoken hashtags; what if your boss or co-worker is offended by comments you made under #OscarsSoWhite or didn’t like your lyrics in that #TrapCover?
Already, many of us think twice before reposting or retweeting political or controversial stories. However, should employers be all up in our social media business? Don’t we have the right to vent or fume about current events without worrying about keeping our jobs?
The answer may depend solely on the whims and judgment of your boss, according to Karen Thompson, who’s worked as a human resources professional for 20 years. “Beware of social media,” she warns. Employees may have the right to post whatever they want, but so far, employers have exercised their right to respond with, “You’re fired.”
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According to CareerBuilder’s the Hiring Site blog, more than half of U.S. employers are checking applicants’ social media pages when deciding whether to offer someone a job.
While more than 60 percent say they’re looking for evidence that supports the applicants’ claims, some admit they’re in search of a reason not to offer a job.
Once you are hired and issued a company computer, that surveillance may reach a whole different level.
“When you are on Facebook or Instagram during work time on their work computer, it’s tracked,” said Thompson.
So while First Amendment rights may protect employees’ right to share their controversial opinions, Thompson suggests that social media users log onto their personal devices, not anything that belongs to the company. Still, waiting until after hours and using your own laptop doesn’t guarantee that your employer won’t see something deemed offensive and fire you for it.
Many companies don’t yet have strict guidelines addressing proper social media use. So a supervisor’s decision to send you packing is subjective, based on his or her preference.
“When you don’t have a rule, people make up their own rules,” said Thompson, whose company does offer a technology class for new hires. “It’s not black and white.”
It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the offensive comment has anything to do with job performance, either. For instance, in 2012 a California Cold Stone Creamery worker was fired for a Facebook post in which she seemingly encouraged the assassination of President Barack Obama.
Though her employer didn’t appear to have any complaints about her work, the 22-year-old was terminated. You can’t really blame a company for wanting to distance itself from someone who supports the assassination of the president, but is there a line, and if so, where is it? If someone disagrees with marriage equality and says so to followers and friends, should that affect his or her job as a dog groomer? Should a grocery clerk’s public, expletive-filled rant against Hillary Clinton result in a trip to the unemployment office?
Thompson said that more companies need guidelines so that employees know from the beginning what is and is not acceptable. Rules would also help employers, many of whom are currently making decisions arbitrarily on a case-by-case basis.
That means, as Thompson suggested, that employees don’t have a lot of recourse when it comes to defending themselves against their social media posts. Just be cautious and use good judgment.
“It’s all about being ethical,” said Thompson. “If you are working for a company, organization or industry, there are ethical reasons why you should be careful about the information that you communicate. Although I would not say as an employer that you should not use social media … keep in mind that as an employee, you have to use discretion as to what kind of information you make public.”