Imagine going to school for years, graduating first in your class and landing the perfect job — all to watch it be thrown away by a 140-character tweet.
This was the reality for a 22-year-old* working as a paramedic in a North Florida county after graduating from Santa Fe College.
While at work, she tweeted numerous messages similar to, “Although everyone’s asleep while I work around the clock, I absolutely love my job.”
“I knew there was a policy but didn’t think it was that serious,” the former paramedic said. “I figured that if I didn’t say anything that would put the company in a bad light, it wouldn’t matter.”
Six months after she was hired, a supervisor confronted her about her violation of the policy, which prohibited any use of social media while on the clock. The supervisor asked her to resign, and she did.
“Do I realize how serious the situation is now? Yes, yes I do,” the former paramedic said. “This was a job I could have seen myself doing for the rest of my life, and now, it’s gone.”
Even If It’s “Private,” Assume It’s Public
In many cases, employees aren’t aware of who is viewing their social networking profile, or they see their online life as a right protected by freedom of speech. Others assume that privacy settings are foolproof, not realizing that computer settings can be bypassed and potentially jeopardize their careers in the process.
Georgia high school teacher Ashley Payne was asked to resign in Aug. 2009, when school officials discovered pictures on Facebook of her sipping beer and wine. The photos were from her vacation, which included a trip to the Guinness brewery in Ireland.
In Feb. 2010, South Carolina firefighter Jason Brown was fired for creating a cartoon video – intended as a spoof – and posting it on Facebook, which his fire department called “an embarrassment.”
Everything that goes online — even posts that users believe are private — potentially can become public, but many people find this concept hard to accept, said Business in the Heart of Florida columnist and former Gainesville resident Crystal Coleman, who is now the community manager at Ning, a Silicon Valley social media consulting company.
There are many examples of employees’ media posts or comments that have put their companies in a negative light, she explained. Those posts often go viral and spread “like wildfire.”
In Dec. 2013, Justine Sacco, a public relations director at InterActiveCorp, tweeted what many considered to be a racist comment shortly before an 11-hour flight. When she landed in Cape Town, South Africa, thousands of angry Twitter users worldwide and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet were waiting on her computer screen. Shortly thereafter, she was fired from IAC.
The Rise of Social Media Policies
“An employer is allowed to say you can’t be on social media at work during working hours,” said Laura Gross, managing partner at Donnelly and Gross, P.A. in Gainesville.
However, Gross said, research has shown that people are happier when they can use social media for a few minutes at work — and they are generally no less effective.
“It’s kind of like the old days where employees would gather around the water cooler,” she said. “Now, someone can take as little as 30 seconds to send a text or post a status to communicate with friends.”
Many companies are beginning to develop media policies, Coleman said, but most policies do not address gray areas such as having a personal phone at your desk or using company computers for personal matters.
“Many non-HR managers believe that an employee can be fired for saying anything negative about their company on Facebook or other social media sites, and that’s simply not true,” said Jackie Knabel, senior vice president of human resources at Meridian Behavioral Healthcare.
Aside from what content an employee is posting, she said, how much time being spent on social networking sites is also seen as a potential problem to employers.
“As an HR professional, I always advise that they focus on an employee’s actual productivity,” she said. “If the employee is meeting their objectives, then I wouldn’t recommend raising a concern regarding time spent on social media.”
Companies today often have a formal social media policy addressing both content and guidelines about time spent on social media, as well as limitations regarding what devices may be used for social media at work.
“It’s a good idea to have the policies reviewed regularly by an employment law attorney, as case rulings and summary reports are constantly being issued that indicate changes to how the National Labor Relations Board interprets what a legal policy looks like,” Knabel said.
Although Florida is a right-to-work state, the National Labor Relations Act protects all employees in the state from overly broad social media policies.
Different Industries, Different Policies
While most policies include the same basic information, there are some industries that lend themselves to policies tailored to their field, explains Knabel. Health care companies, for example, have a strict, legal responsibility to protect their clients or patients.
“Just identifying someone as a client or patient without their permission may violate their rights,” Knabel said.
According to the Federation of State Medical Boards, the use of social media can present several challenging questions for administrators and physicians, such as whether work experience can be shared without violating the privacy and confidentiality of patients.
“There are many important concerns when dealing with the health care and financial industries, which include privacy and document retention issues,” Gross said. “These employers are highly regulated and must maintain greater control over their patients’ and clients’ information.”
Other industries can afford to be more lenient.
The founders of Alachua County-based Info Tech, which was established in 1977, have always treated their employees like they’re part of a family, said Amber McClave, the company’s general counsel.
“One of our guiding principles is that we trust our employees. We’re on the side of trust with our social media policy,” McClave said.
The company’s social media policy is simple: Keep personal use to a minimum, and follow company rules about confidentiality of trade secrets and intellectual property when posting any information online.
“We realize that everyone has a life outside the office, and we allow employees to engage with social media while working as long as it doesn’t interfere with their productivity,” McClave said.
Info Tech occasionally reminds its employees that their personal lives can affect the company.
“It’s not that big of a town and people often know where you work, so your social media presence can reflect on the company,” she said.
Benefits of Social Media Use
“There have been cases where potential employees have been overlooked because they don’t have a social media presence,” Coleman said.
Effective personal media is a common lesson for college students.
“The whole idea behind social networking is to get an idea of who you are, what you do professionally and personally and what you’re like online,” said Steve Johnson, adjunct lecturer and visual coordinator at the UF College of Journalism and Communications.
While sharing advice with his students, Johnson said he advises them to reread their last three tweets on Twitter.
“Those last three tweets should give whoever is looking at their profile a little snippet of information into their lives. The key is to best represent yourself as exactly who you are,” he said.
Johnson doesn’t advise privatizing or having multiple social networking profiles to hide social media. He said ultimately, putting anything on the Internet is going to be viewable to a certain extent.
The Future of Social Media in the Workplace
“Employees are entitled to communicate,” Gross said. “This is activity which is intended to further wages and working conditions, and the law recognizes that such activity often occurs at work during break and other non-work times.”
She noted that children, teens and those just entering the workforce are now using other social media applications such as Snapchat or Whisper, which allow photos or texts to disappear after a certain time limit.
“This is creating a whole new realm of issues,” she said. “It can be very problematic as it relates to business.”
Another rising problem involves disputes over ownership or an employer-sponsored social media account on LinkedIn or Twitter, Gross said.
“An employer may hand over control of social media to an employee who is more sophisticated with technology. That may be a good solution, but first the employer should obtain the employee’s written acknowledgement that the employer is the account owner,” Gross said.
She mentioned a recent case that involved a head chef who created and controlled a Twitter account for the restaurant where he worked. He was later terminated and then used the account to tweet negative information about the restaurant.
Gross noted that it’s important for society to recognize that times are changing.
Coleman agrees. “Because the Internet and social profiles are making everyone’s mistakes more easily caught and more easily viewable, I think we’re eventually going to see a shift that people will become more forgiving,” she said.
However, she cautions that this doesn’t mean that individuals need to be less careful. “All it takes is one off-color or questionable remark to hurt someone’s career.”
With over 1 billion users on Facebook and with other social networking sites, such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Vine, gaining traction, everyone’s online activity is potentially public and no one is immune from possible termination as a result of one unfortunate keystroke.
*Business Magazine has kept the source anonymous for the sake of privacy.
Some states, including Florida, have adopted or are considering adopting laws prohibiting companies from requiring employees to provide social media account information.
Florida state Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, introduced Senate Bill 198, which would prohibit an employer from requiring access to the social media account of an employee or potential employees. The bill would also ban an employer from retaliating against an employee for not going along with such a request or using non-compliance as a reason not to hire.