What is at Stake in Social Networking? Your Job.

A decade ago, I lost my job at a company I had been at for a number of years because of a questionable post I made online that indicated I had not so friendly feelings for “the ole boss lady.”

Back in 2007, a couple of reporters from The Columbus Dispatch surveyed a number of Ohio teacher’s profiles and also provided snippets of their posts and descriptions.  In a side bar, they also recounted the tale of 4 teachers who had been “reprimanded, resigned, or lost their licenses because of email, IM, chat, online gaming, text, blogs or postings involving students” (Maranto and Baron 36-37).

Recently, the National Labor Relations Board reviewed 129 cases involving social media in someway, where they have found that the crux of the legal issue resulted with an employer unlawfully discharging or reprimanding an employee on the grounds of social networking misuse.

Here are the two links to the archived articles from The Columbus Dispatch and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Survey:

http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2007/11/10/Bad_Web.ART_ART_11-10-07_A1_DV8E9RN.html

U.S. Chamber of Commerce, A Survey of Social Media Issues Before the NLRB:

http://www.uschamber.com/reports/survey-social-media- issues-nlrb

Consider also that a year ago, while I was working for a background screening company, I learned it was not uncommon for human resource managers to search the web for additional background information on potential candidates.  They were trying to discover what their extracurricular activities included: the results ran the gamut, from drunken sprees and skinny dipping to squeaky clean photos at fund raising events or weddings.

So what is at stake in social networking?  The quick answer is obviously reputation.  Another answer?  Your job.

My company chose to terminate my employment because of the potential readers in my network, citing that it would reflect poorly on them to have someone like me on their payroll.  Someone like me?  Who exactly am I to them?  A dissident?  A slacker?  Possibly.  The possible interpretation by others was a very real threat and potentially damaging to their reputation as an employer.  Thanks to my ruminations on “the ole boss lady,” I wrote my way to the unemployment office.

Two things were happening here: 1) My virtual identity was no longer a free agent and 2) the information on my chosen social networking site was no longer just an update among friends.  It was public domain and my employer was monitoring the site.

That revelation seems so obvious.  So why do people continue to risk their reputation by posting questionable or inappropriate material?  There is no easy or fast answer – people make mistakes, but I suggest the very structure of the site we find ourselves on influences our attitudes about the things we post.  When we sign up for Facebook, it asks a host of categorical questions in order to network you to others like you.  What music do you like?  What books do you read?  Where do you live?  All of these personal questions, lull the applicant into forgetting that this site is public, public, public – but once you have 200 plus friends, who can remember if their old boss or coworker is a “friend?”

What all of this boils down to is intention.  Did I intend to mar the corporate image of my company and disrespect my boss or did I intend to sound cool to my friends?  As a student, as a teacher, as a technical communicator, it is important to keep in mind your purpose and your audience– just as you would when you are speaking or writing at school, in the classroom as a teacher, or at work in a corporate environment.  What’s critical here is not only your self image displayed online, but also the many social spheres your image is tied to.  For instance, many corporations now have social media policy that asks you to be yourself, but to be mindful that you are also a company representative.

As a teacher, the online world can be perilous.  On one hand, networking with students can be a fantastic opportunity to become a virtual representative of and for the interactive classroom.  On the other, it could simultaneously undercut ethos and authority, opening the possibility of seeing students as “friends.”  The online world may behave differently, with its fast moving bits and clips, but the reputation you build for yourself through dialogue is the same – keep it clean, positive, and professional – and your social network won’t get you into trouble.  Post like your mom is reading every word you type.

On the flip-side, even if you do have a horrible interview because human resources found some pictures of you doing a keg stand in college, there’s probably still a friend on Facebook that can help you find a lead elsewhere.

Want a refresher?  Check out this Toshiba sponsored YouTube clip for Do’s and Don’ts of social networking.

Rachel C.

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