Can Social Networking be Good for your Career?

Courtesy of VistaNews by Sunbelt Software:

We’ve all heard the horror stories about how posting the wrong thing on MySpace or FaceBook can come back to haunt you at work. Stories abound about people who have been fired because of something they said on a social networking sites. From a sheriff’s deputy in Florida to a Wal-Mart cashier in Michigan to a teacher in Pennsylvania, they all have one thing in common: they all lost their jobs because of the words they wrote or the photos they shared on MySpace. You can read more about those individual cases here:

And of course, they represent only a sampling of those who have met the same fate. There are no statistics readily available regarding the number of workers fired for “inappropriate online behavior” but in a 2007 Forrester survey, 58 percent of companies interviewed reported that they had written policies restricting the use of social networks and almost 5 percent said they had fired someone for violation of those policies.

Social networking “no no’s” for employees range from divulging company secrets online to personal behavior that puts the employee (and thus the company) in a less-than-professional light. A teacher in Florida was fired for placing an “inappropriate photograph and comments” in his MySpace profile. A Goldman Sachs trader lost his job because of his FaceBook “addiction” and for posting a warning letter from his employer on his FaceBook site. A store employee in London was fired for writing an obscene remark about his company on his FaceBook site. And a university newspaper columnist was fired when comments he made on the social networking site resulted in students starting a campaign to have him removed from the paper.

Just do a web search on “fired FaceBook” or “fired MySpace” and you’ll find story after story along these lines. And for the most part, these cases only make the news when someone gets fired. Who knows how many others out there have been demoted, suspended, received pay cuts or have otherwise been disciplined by their employers without losing their jobs?

Many of those who have been fired or disciplined have protested that their employers’ actions were unfair, and some see it as a violation of their “right to freedom of speech.” What they don’t understand is that the constitutional protection of the first amendment prohibits the government from censoring your speech (that’s why it starts out with “Congress shall make no law …”). It doesn’t extend to private employers.

Many folks operate under the mistaken assumption that they can’t legally be fired unless they’ve done something wrong. But even if you can prove that your social networking behavior wasn’t a violation of any company policy, that doesn’t mean they can’t fire you for it. In most states in the U.S., employment is “at will.” That means an employer can terminate your employment without any reason at all – as long as the reason isn’t discrimination against some protected class (race, color, national origin, age, gender, religion or disability). There are exceptions in the case of unions and employment contracts, and there are also state and federal laws that prohibiting firing an employee for refusing to commit an illegal act or for taking medical leave. Firing a worker for what he or she posts on a web site doesn’t fall under any of those protections.

Because of all this, many people have decided that the best protection is to stay away from social networking entirely, and you can hardly blame them. But is that a little like deciding that the best way to protect yourself against the risk of electrocution is to cut off all the power to your home? Does it make more sense to learn to use social networking more wisely – and perhaps actually enhance your career status and opportunities in the process?

Social networking is all about getting to know more people, making contacts – something that can be very valuable in many lines of business. The trick is to cultivate the kinds of contacts that can help you advance in your job, rather than hurt your chances. That means 1) hanging out in the right places online, and 2) presenting yourself in the right way in those places.

First, then, you should be careful about which sites you join. MySpace and FaceBook are seen by many employers as the equivalent of online singles bars or at best, somewhat juvenile past times. Please don’t write to tell me how wrong this perception is, because when it comes to the impact on your job, it really doesn’t matter whether the perception is accurate or not if your boss (or your boss’s bosses) see it that way. If you want to be seen as a professional, you’re probably better off joining more business-oriented networking sites such as LinkedIn, and/or those that are specific to your occupation or industry.

Whatever sites you choose to join, make sure your profile reflects the qualities that you would present to a potential client or employer – not some fantasy life that’s better positioned for attracting a date (you just might find that this professional approach ends up attracting a higher quality of date, as well). It might seem obvious that posting suggestive photos or recounting the details of how drunk you got at last weekend’s party might not be good for your career, but people who should know better continue to do those very things – and then seem surprised when they find themselves on the “fired over FaceBook” list.

Now you might think that you can have your cake and eat it, too, by showing off your “professionalism” on the business-oriented sites and indulging your “wild side” on the “friends-oriented” sites, but that’s likely to backfire on you in more ways than one. Both the boss and your new romantic interest may very well look at both profiles, and inconsistencies just make it look as if you’re leading a double life – something that’s not likely to sit well with either.

Think you can get around it by using a pseudonym for your less savory profile? It might work – but maintaining a false identity isn’t always easy, and most of the social networking sites prohibit using false names or giving false information in their terms of service. If you’re found out, you could get kicked off the site – or much worse. In at least one case (as we discussed last month in the editorial Are You Breaking the Law by Lying Online?), criminal charges have been brought based on accessing MySpace under a fake identity. Is it really worth the risk?

Of course, some of the social networks allow you to control who can view your site, so you could always make it private. However, this might cause as many problems as it solves. Some employers will conclude that if you’re keeping your site hidden, that must mean you have something to hide.

The proper use of social networking has benefited many careers. As a self employed writer and consultant, I’ve gotten some great referrals from people I’ve connected to on LinkedIn. I know folks who have been hired by new companies or gotten promotions at least in part because of their astute use of social networking. As with any other technology, it’s neither inherently good or bad – it’s all about how you use it.

Tell us about your experiences with social networking. Has belonging to SN sites helped you to become better known in your field and enhanced your career? Have you gotten into trouble at work because of your social networking activities – or have you worried that you might? Do you think it’s unfair for employers to read employees’ social networking profiles, or is it a legitimate part of evaluating your character and fitness for the job? Is a social networking profile relevant to some jobs and not others? Do you have less respect for a colleague if you find out he/she has a MySpace site? If that site were restricted so that it’s not viewable by the general public, would that make you suspicious that it contains inappropriate content? Share your opinions at

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