Whether you like it or not, social media is everywhere. What used to be a trend among college-aged kids and millennials is now a new norm for catching up with friends, sharing milestones, and staying in touch with family.
There’s a dark side to all of this connectivity, though – anyone can view the intimate details of your life with a few simple keystrokes. In fact, your employer might be very interested in what you’re posting online. In some cases, you can actually get fired over what appears on your social media feed.
Is it legal for employers to fire you over a social media post? Do employees have any rights when it comes to social media? We’ll explore all of these topics in this guide to help you understand what you can and can’t post, from your employer’s perspective.
Social Media in the Workplace
Social media monitoring on the job? It may sound like something that only happens in movies or at fast-paced tech companies, but it happens across the country, every day.
You might be thinking there’s no way your employer could ever fire you over your social media content. Maybe you think your online content is harmless or maybe your profile is private. Even if you fall under one of these categories, you could still be at risk.
When it comes to social media, a simple like on the wrong post could be enough to paint you in bad light. Remember that one time you liked a questionable meme just because your friend from high school posted it? A split-second click on a controversial topic could be enough to get you in trouble at work.
Sure, your profile may be private, but remember those few work colleagues you added your first month at the new job? You might never talk to them, but they can see everything you post and could get you in trouble for it.
What You Can Post On Social Media
Every company has its own culture and expectations for employees, usually detailed in an employee handbook or code of conduct. While your employer might not like you posting about certain workplace subjects, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has defined some topics employees cannot be fired for discussing.
According to the NLRB, you cannot be fired for discussing:
Your pay. If you think your wages are unfair or too low, talking about it on social media is not a fireable offense.
Your workplace conditions. If you think your job conditions are unsafe or unfair, you can discuss the subject online. You can even discuss employees you don’t think are doing their share of the workload or managers with unfair practices. Be sure to keep the conversation professional, however. Attacking individuals based on subjective traits, like their personality or appearance is not legal.
Your job terms. Your workplace agreement can often be discussed online, though you should read any fine print in your employee contract ahead of time.
The NLRB also protects you in the event that your workplace fires you for being a member of a political organization that goes against the company’s views. While it’s not illegal to be a member of an outside organization on your own time, online hate speech is not a protected right. Liking, sharing, or making remarks on social media that attack a race, religion, or gender can get you fired.
What You Shouldn’t Post Publicly on Social Media
There are certain red flags employers look for when monitoring their employees’ social media feeds. To prevent an HR issue from arising, you should be sure to avoid these types of posts or adjust your social media privacy settings.
According to experts, the topics you should be careful about posting publicly include:
Suggestive or inappropriate photos. Make sure any photos that violate the company dress code, are sexually suggestive, or show you participating in activities that violate company policy are removed or made private.
Derogatory posts about employees or the workplace. Making fun of a manager’s haircut or putting down employees you don’t like can get you in trouble with human resources (HR). Keep your personal opinions about your coworkers to yourself when posting publicly.
Photos on a sick day. Everyone deserves a break once in a while, but posting pictures of yourself partying or out having fun when you called in sick can be grounds for termination.
Unfortunately, the laws regarding what you can and cannot post on social media are still murky, so it’s in your best interest to be cautious when posting sensitive information online.
Your Career Type Also Impacts What You Can Post Online
Some careers are more sensitive than others and require a higher degree of professionalism online. K-12 teachers, for example, need to be especially careful about posting online. The Journal of Workplace Rights notes many cases where teachers who have vented online about their students have gotten in trouble for the way their posts were perceived. Many have even lost their jobs over this content.
Trouble can also arise when teachers, specifically high school teachers, befriend and interact with students online. While social media can be used as a learning tool, teachers have also been dismissed for posting questionable content on students’ feeds.
Posting content that is morally objectionable or controversial has also led to teachers losing their jobs. It’s recommended that teachers post cautiously on social media, do not befriend students or parents of students, and keep their profiles private.
The type of job you have might require keeping your profile more secure and professional, so be sure you understand your workplace handbook inside and out.
When You Post Online Also Matters
Even if you have a squeaky clean online profile, you could still be in danger of losing your job over social media content. How? It all comes back to when you post and how often you’re posting.
PEW Research Center found that even when employees have policies regarding when and what you can post on social media at work, 77% of employees continue to use social media. Browsing the internet and checking your social media feed is second nature to most of us, but many employers believe it can distract you from your job duties. Some employers even view it as stealing company time.
On the flip side, some studies show that employees may be more engaged at work if they’re allowed to check social media. The Harvard Business Review notes that 82% of employees believe they’re more productive when they’re allowed to engage in social media during the workday. Yet, this study also notes that more than half of all U.S. companies block social media access for their employees. No matter the benefits, legally, employees cannot engage in social media during the workday if their employer does not allow it.
Employers Can View Your Online Activity, Legally
If you do have free reign to the internet at your job, be careful what you browse. Most employees aren’t aware that their employers are allowed to view their online history. Anything you do online on the company’s internet or with a company machine can be monitored. Employers are often even allowed to read your emails, instant messages, and chats as well as anything you post online.
Checking social media on your phone if you aren’t logged into wifi can help keep your online posting secure while at work. You should be aware of your company’s cell phone policy, though. Many companies limit how often you can use your cell phone or may prohibit you from bringing one into the workplace entirely, only allowing you to check your phone on breaks.
Consistently using your phone during work hours can also be grounds for termination. You should review your company’s policies on technology to understand what you are and are not allowed to do during work hours, and exercise good judgment when browsing the web in the workplace.
Think Twice Before You Post
There is a lot of gray area surrounding social media in the workplace. In general, it’s a good idea to post cautiously and think about anything you like or share online. Take advantage of privacy settings and do your own checkup to ensure your social media accounts do not have any red flags.
You should also be aware of your company’s policy regarding internet and phone usage. Be smart – don’t risk your job by spending a few mindless minutes liking posts or images that could cost you your job. Instead, save social media for when you’re off the clock.