Photo: Nefi via flickr
You probably know all the ways social media can help you professionally. You can demonstrate your expertise on a topic using Twitter, network your way to a new job using LinkedIn and keep old connections fresh on Facebook.
But social media can also have a darker side.
78% of job recruiters check search engines for background on candidates, and 63% check social media sites, too. So it doesn’t matter how you set your privacy settings, whether you friend your boss on Facebook, or how few followers you have: What you do on social media every day can have a very real impact on your career and your salary.
Some social media blunders aren’t so obvious, even to those of you who know your way around a hashtag. Over the past couple of years, a few snafus have gained pop culture notoriety, earning nicknames like the “Cisco Fatty” incident or spawning a whole new name for getting caught skipping work: “pulling a Facebook Fairy.”
All in all, these hilarious blunders—summarized below—make for a perfect list of what not to do on your favourite social networking site, lest it cost you your job. To help you avoid making any missteps, we talked to two social media luminaries, Shama Kabani, CEO of The Marketing Zen Group and author of “The Zen of Social Media Marketing“; and Diane Danielson, Principal Consultant with DKDNew Media Strategies and co-author of “The Savvy Gal’s Guide to Online Networking (or What Would Jane Austen Do?)“.
Read on for our list of the craziest social media blunders yet—and how not to make one of your own.
1. Tweet About an Interview or Job Offer
In what is now known as the “Cisco Fatty” incident, a graduate student scored a paid internship at Cisco, then promptly tweeted, “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.”
A Cisco employee saw it and responded with, “Who is the hiring manager? I’m sure they would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the web.”
A better career move: Even if you’re not being rude in your tweet, still be careful. “The interview process shouldn’t be for public consumption until it’s a done deal,” Danielson says. “Your competition might say ‘Oh wait, there’s a marketing position available, maybe I’ll apply for it too!'”
If you want to share your excitement during the job search, try a more gracious post like, “Looking forward to my interview. The company looks like a great place to work.” Never conjecture publicly about how the interview went—you’re making assumptions that could rub the hiring manager the wrong way.
2. Play Hooky
Kevin Colvin will forever live in Facebook ignominy as an intern who claimed a family emergency on Halloween … but his co-workers saw a time-stamped picture of him dressed as a fairy and holding a beer. His boss fired him, CC’ing the entire company and including the picture. Now, getting caught online while playing hooky is called “pulling a Facebook Fairy.”
A better career move: First, don’t friend your co-workers on Facebook (that’s what LinkedIn is for). Also, don’t check in on Foursquare when you’re supposedly in bed.
But Danielson points out that staying offline isn’t enough: “Somebody could check in on Foursquare at the same place and say you were there, or post pictures of you on Facebook.” Stuff happens, so the easiest way to be safe is to just keep things above board.
3. criticise Your Work Conditions … Unless You’re Serious
Five employees of the National Hispanics of Buffalo complained on Facebook about their company, and were all fired, even though they posted when they weren’t at work.
But there’s a twist: Complaining about your work conditions is technically protected speech under labour law, and in this and 13 other instances of terminations based on social media complaining, the National labour Relations Board (NLRB) went to bat for the employees. In several cases the companies were forced to rehire the employees or settle with the board for monetary damages.
A better career move: Although criticising wages, working hours or conditions is technically protected under labour law, “You have to be really careful because most companies today have social media policies,” says Kabani. “If you are unhappy with work conditions, a private conversation with your supervisor will go much further than posting a scathing comment on Twitter. Also, it makes future employers look at you with a raised eyebrow.”
4. Post Off-colour or Tasteless Remarks
Examples abound of people being fired for racist and insensitive remarks, but some employers’ grounds for firing are subtler. A Walmart employee was fired for making remarks on Facebook like, “The government needs to step in and set a limit on the kids people are allowed to have based on their income. If you can’t afford to feed them, you shouldn’t be allowed to have them!!!” An offended customer reported him to management.
A better career move: We don’t want to say you shouldn’t be opinionated, but consider whom you might offend before you post; laws on what are grounds for firing vary from state to state. As a rule, avoid subjects like race, death or disaster. The “too soon” effect—joking about a sensitive topic that just happened—is worse in 140 characters.
5. Tell the World That You’re Bored
One entry-level employee complained about her boredom on Facebook, and was promptly dismissed with a letter firing her because “you are not happy and do not enjoy your work.” Although saying you’re bored might be an obvious flub, far too many employees still post remarks like, “This work week is dragging.” That could still be considered a dig at your employer.
A better career move: While Danielson concedes that being bored isn’t usually enough to get you fired, she says, “I’m not going to promote someone who says they’re bored,” Danielson says. “She can get that fixed and obviously isn’t interested in doing so.” If you find yourself in this position, volunteer for more challenging projects or have a talk with your supervisor. (This is just one of our recommendations on how to up your salary.)
As for overenthusiastic TGIF posts, Habani would instead say something like, “Looking forward to enjoying family time this weekend!” That way, you aren’t offending your employer, but you’re still expressing your enjoyment that the work week is over.
6. Blog About Inappropriate Topics (Even Anonymously)
In 2004 former congressional staff assistant Jessica Cutler started an anonymous blog detailing her sex life, including being paid in exchange for sex. She was outed by a blog, fired, sued by one of the men she mentioned, and eventually had to declare bankruptcy. Even after the $300,000 from a book deal.
A better career move: If you start a personal blog, know that your co-workers will find out, even if you try to hide it. If you have serious issues with your workplace, have a plan B for when you get found out. Heather Armstrong of Dooce was able to parlay her firing into a successful blogging career, but she is the exception—not the rule.
If you just want to blog about your hobbies, review your company’s social media guidelines or talk to your supervisor about your plans. And don’t level damaging accusations without considering the consequences. Even if what you say is true, you could be buried under an expensive lawsuit.
7. Badmouth Your Clients
One Starbucks employee was fired when an (actually quite clever) YouTube video of him singing criticisms of customers reached Starbucks executives.
Call it hypersensitivity, but don’t even badmouth your client’s hometown! The day before a meeting with FedEx, advertising executive James Andrews dissed the company’s hometown, Memphis, via Twitter. He and his agency were forced to make a public apology.
A better career move: If you are steamed about your treatment by clients and something needs to change, take it up with your superior and brainstorm ways to improve the situation. But when you’re in public, sometimes you just need to put on a smile and kvetch to your friends in private.
8. Pick a Public Fight
When a PR professional tweeted about her frustration with a mean reporter, the reporter jumped into the ring and cursed at her in several tweets. Of course, this bad behaviour wound up all over the internet. The reporter’s newspaper had to issue an apology on his behalf. If he hadn’t already resigned to work elsewhere, he probably would have been fired.
A better career move: If you’re getting criticised publicly, Kabani suggests you consider having a respectful, public conversation if the criticism is fair (even if it’s negative). “It can be helpful for others to see that you handle criticism well,” she says. “On the other hand, if someone is attacking you at a personal level (cyber bullying), then ignore them.” These individuals are “trolls,” and there is never much point in engaging with them, he says.
9. Talk Trash About Your Boss, Colleagues or organisation
One reporter used Twitter to criticise typos from his colleagues and make fun of an intern. His snarky tweets were copied into an email and forwarded around the newsroom, leading to a sharp reprimand from his boss.
A better career move: If your boss or colleagues are truly insufferable and you hate your job, take our Build Your Career Bootcamp, which gives you a fair assessment of your options. If you decide to leave, you can communicate why in a respectful way in your exit interview. Learn how to do that here.
10. Hang Loose When You Work With Children
When it’s your job to mould young minds, even small indiscretions can get blown out of proportion. Posting pictures from a bachelorette party, making fun of a student’s haircut and calling students “germ bags,” have all brought down the ire of parents and officials on teachers’ heads. One teacher was even fired for posting pictures of herself with alcoholic drinks in her hands, though she wasn’t Facebook friends with any of her students.
A better career move: If you work with children, your social media presence should be squeaky clean. “Do not friend colleagues and do not engage with any students,” Danielson says. “If they try to contact you, shut them down. Know your privacy settings inside and out.” For how to clean up your privacy settings in one fell swoop, read this.
Stay on top of anything others say about you, as well: Kabani uses Google Alerts and socialmention.com—which keeps track of everything people are talking about on social media—to keep tabs on what’s being said about her and her clients.
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