A few years ago, I opened my work email inbox and discovered an email from an angry radio host, accusing an author of destroying his reputation on Facebook.
I was working in publicity at a Christian publishing company at the time, and I had arranged interviews with this particular host for dozens of authors. But this time, an author had been unhappy with the interview, and claimed that the host had not read the book. He hadn’t, but it was my fault for not mailing the review copy in time. The host had done his best with the limited amount of information he had, but the author felt very disrespected. She took to Facebook to vent her frustration and the radio host saw it.
Fortunately, we were able to smooth things over, but it was a powerful lesson to me about how a few words online can have a major impact in the workplace.
The role of social media in the workplace can be a gray area, especially for younger Millennials who don’t remember a time when they weren’t posting, tweeting and Instagramming. I cringe to think about some of the things I would have posted as a teenager — not to mention the pictures. I am fortunate that my “Rachel” from Friends haircut is only memorialized in my freshman yearbook. But more than embarrassing pictures from two decades ago, now kids are posting nude selfies. Such posts can have consequences that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
In fact, some companies are starting to scrutinize an employee’s online footprint to make sure he or she is fit for the job. This article explains how the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) — the department that manages security clearance for the federal government — is trying to automate the social media background checks of employees.
OPM is looking for companies that can automatically browse “publicly available electronic information,” which includes information posted to news and media sites; Facebook, Twitter and other social media postings; blog postings; online court records, updates to photo and video-sharing sites; and information gleaned from online e-commerce sites, such as Amazon and eBay.
Essentially, the OPM is looking at social media and online information to help determine if a federal employee will receive security clearance, and will most likely continue to evaluate someone’s online presence for as long as they have the clearance.
So is the answer to go off grid and erase every trace of your online life? (Good luck with that.) No, the solution is to be thoughtful about what you post. How will that blog post come across to a potential employer? If you recklessly comment or engage in pointless arguments, will your boss wonder if you’re a liability to the company’s reputation?
I try to keep two questions in mind when deciding how and what to post online:
- Does this add value to the conversation?
- Are my motives right? (I find it’s easy to post out of a need for attention or validation, or out of frustration or cynicism, when I could be dealing with issues in a more healthy, face-to-face context).
If I have to wonder if I should post it, then the answer is always I shouldn’t. Always.
However you interact with the world on the other side of your phone or computer screen, remember that your employment status might depend on it. Be wise, be discerning, and don’t post dumb stuff.