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When social media turns ugly

Want to moan on Facebook about your workplace? First step: unfriend your work colleagues. If you don’t do that, then you cannot complain when you go into work and find out that people are not happy with you – and you might be facing a telling off or disciplinary action.

We’ve heard numerous stories about people criticising their workplaces on social media and then being surprised when they get into trouble. Normally it’s their colleagues who have seen these posts and raised them at work, but sometimes people forget that their managers are connected to them on their chosen social media sites too.

There are countless examples of people losing their jobs after posting on X/Twitter, Facebook and all kinds of other social media sites including:

Apart from being sacked, you can sometimes attract publicity if your tweets are public and controversial – as the stockbroker and communications director discovered. The lawyer who posted on online rant about the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris is facing the same issue. In Sussex, a supermarket worker who said on Facebook that he “hates the homeless” attracted publicity. Which means anyone looking for online information about them in the future will see these things too.

So how should people deal with social media issues at work? Firstly, think about having a social media policy with a clear message: “If you post something negative about work, then you might get in trouble.” (Not literally.) We usually put this in employment contracts too. That way anyone who is unwise enough to tweet about hating their job cannot complain when it backfires.

Secondly, don’t overreact. That’s easier said than done if the comments posted have attracted attention and you have an angry online mob expressing opinions about what you “must” do while brandishing torches and pitchforks. It’s easy for everyone involved to get sucked into seeing it as a terribly serious issue too, including the person who posted the comments. So slow down, follow the normal disciplinary process and don’t rush to make decisions. If you cannot see the wood for the trees, think about getting someone else to deal with the disciplinary – someone with a clearer head who isn’t caught up in the events.

Finally, look at your social media accounts and think about how you use them. If you’re sharing everything you post publicly and your bio shows who you are, then you cannot expect the content to remain private. Can people easily join the dots to find out where you work, for example by taking your name from a social media account and then looking on LinkedIn? If they can, then don’t assume you can tweet about your job and tell any critics that you haven’t said where you work.

Like it or not, recruiters and employers are increasingly looking at social media accounts when they make hiring decisions. We recently talked to a manager who liked a candidate but dropped her after seeing her Instagram – too many posts about drinking, parties and hangovers at work. If she had decided not to have a public account, if she had used a social media site with a lower profile or if she just hadn’t shared that information, she might have got the job.