By J. Isaac Wheeler
Personal social media posts are not off limits when it comes to employment determinations. More and more companies and employees are finding each other at odds over what, if any, online behavior is acceptable. A 2022 survey* found that 88% of U.S. hiring managers would consider firing employees for content in their online posts.
There have been several high-profile cases in recent years where employees have been fired or were forced to resign over their social media posts.
A high school teacher in Colorado was fired after it was discovered she posted a degrading photo of a student on Instagram.
A Papa John’s executive was overheard using a racial slur during a conference call. The incident was shared on social media, and the executive resigned.
A Google employee was terminated for violating the company’s code of conduct after he wrote a memo that said the company’s diversity initiatives were unnecessary and harmful.
A police officer in Atlanta was fired after posting a video in which he used racial slurs and threatened to kill “every black person” he saw.
These cases demonstrate that employers are taking employee social media posts seriously. Employees must be careful about what they post as it can have real-world consequences for their employment.
A Harris Poll survey highlighted five primary reasons for employment termination. These included publishing content damaging the company’s reputation (59%), revealing confidential company information (58%), showcasing or mentioning illegal drug use (50%), violating the company’s social media use policy or contract (45%), and showcasing or mentioning underage drinking (38%).
Only 12% of U.S. hiring managers said there is nothing a company could fire an employee for based on their social media posts.
When job seekers were asked about social media use, the majority (86%) agreed that companies could fire employees based on their social content if it reveals confidential company information (64%), violates the company’s social media use policy or contract (58%), or damages the company’s reputation (57%).
Additionally, content mentioning illegal drug use (50%), underage drinking (43%), or beliefs different than those held by the company (21%) were also seen as grounds for termination.
Employees have a variety of reactions to company policies regarding social media. Some feel the policies are necessary to maintain a professional image for the company and therefore support them. Others find the policies are too restrictive and stifle their freedom of expression.
Employees also point out that policies that are not clear enough could be abused. Many feel their privacy is being invaded by employers monitoring their social media activity.
Additionally, employees feel policies must be enforced consistently to avoid discriminating against specific individuals or groups.
Social Media Use on the Clock
One in four employers (40%) discourage the use of social media during work hours, while 30% provide resources and information on professional social media etiquette. Twenty-six percent of companies have a social media use policy/contract that employees must sign. Conversely, twenty-five percent encourage their workers to build their personal brand on social media.
At a more extreme level, 19% of businesses block social media sites on company property. For example, the federal government and several state governments have implemented policies banning TikTok primarily because the platform’s owner, ByteDance, is based in China, which could pose a national security threat.
A smaller percentage of companies take an active approach to guarding against damaging social media use, with 17% viewing or monitoring employees’ social media accounts and 13% having direct access to employees’ social media accounts.
If an employee’s content on social media violates company policies or standards, the ramifications can vary depending on the specific situation and the company’s policies. Some potential consequences include:
Termination of employment. In severe cases, such as if the employee’s content is discriminatory, offensive, or violates a nondisclosure agreement, the company may choose to terminate the employee’s employment.
A reprimand or disciplinary action. If the employee’s content is deemed unprofessional or violates company guidelines, they may receive a warning or other disciplinary action.
Damage to the company’s reputation. Even if an employee’s content is not directly related to the company, it can still reflect negatively on the company if it is offensive or controversial.
Loss of clients or partners. Negative comments can also result in a loss of clients or partners. For publicly traded firms, stock prices could also drop, creating further instability for the company and a lasting ripple effects on its reputation.
Legal issues. The company could face legal problems if the employee’s content is discriminatory, defamatory, or illegal. Disclosure of private details could result in law suits or significant fines.
Employees should be mindful of how their online behavior may reflect on their employer and colleagues.
In fact, everyone should maintain a professional presence on social media because it can not only affect their current company but also future employment opportunities. A poor decision in content posting can haunt individuals for the rest of their careers. Today, it is common practice for employers to research social media profiles as part of the hiring process. A negative or unprofessional online presence can hurt a candidate’s chances of getting the job.
Both Sides Matter
Social media is a powerful tool for expression and connection. However, it’s crucial for employees to be aware of their company’s social media policies and to understand that their online behavior can have real-world consequences for both themselves and their employer.
While social media is a vital part of people’s lives, it’s best to refrain from publishing anything related to your job or place of employment.
It’s equally important for companies to communicate their social media policies to employees clearly and to ensure that the policies are fair, consistent, and transparent in their application. When formulating these policies, employers should also consider employees’ privacy and freedom of expression rights.
J. Isaac Wheeler is the owner of Express Employment Professionals, Akron West, in Fairlawn.
*Survey Methodology. The Job Insights and Omnibus surveys were conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Express Employment Professionals between December 1 and December 15, 2022. The Job Insights survey included 1,002 U.S. hiring decision-makers (defined as adults ages 18+ in the U.S. who are employed full-time or self-employed, work at companies with more than one employee, and have full/significant involvement in hiring decisions at their company). The omnibus survey included 2,041 adults ages 18 and older. Data were weighted where necessary by age, gender, race/ethnicity, region, education, marital status, household size, household income, and propensity to be online to bring them in line with their actual proportions in the population.