Social media is exploding with political discussion these days, and we’ve all read the stories about employees being fired for something they posted on their personal social media accounts. Are you putting your job at risk by sharing political opinions on social media? How far can you go without attracting the wrong kind of attention of your employer or customers?
The law, at least, is on the side of free speech. According to HR professional Patty Malenfant, so-called “water-cooler talk” online is legally protected. Your company might not be thrilled about what you’re posting on your personal social media accounts, but it can’t take action against you unless what you post is threatening or can damage the reputation of the company.
Companies making social media policies can walk a tightrope. Fred Null, National Director of Human Resources for Barbizon Lighting, says, “in setting up policies in a company you do have to be very careful, because it is an employee’s right to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t hurt the company. But how do you define that?”
Defining what can “hurt the company” is really the crux of the problem. It depends partly on the nature of the business. Large companies—with large legal departments—typically have tighter social media policies than small ones. Companies that provide consulting or advising services must protect their reputations as objective advisors; they tend to be hyper-vigilant about their brands and are more likely to feel that employees represent the company even on their personal social media accounts. Most of the time, though, figuring out what might hurt the company comes down to common sense. Last year when a loan officer tweeted a racist and abusive remark about Michelle Obama, people wondered, quite reasonably, how she treated minority loan applicants. She was fired. It’s hard to imagine how she could have expected any other outcome.
Ms. Loan Officer clearly crossed a line, but not all cases are so straightforward. Lynne Eisaguerre of Workplaces that Work says there’s often a higher bar for senior-level employees, who may have contracts that go beyond the employment agreements that bind all employees. People in leadership positions may be construed as representing the company’s views, and their agreements may include stricter guidelines for personal online activity.
Lynne also points out that while you do have the right to free speech, you probably don’t have the right to use company-owned equipment, servers, or networks to spread your ideas. If you’re using a company laptop or technology to post on social media, you’re likely violating company policy, and your company has the right to access what you’ve posted. If you insist on using company resources to post on social media, Lynne suggests, “don’t post anything that you don’t want your boss to read, or a judge to read, or the Russians to read.”
Lynne says it’s often a matter of diplomacy rather than legality. Saying inflammatory things around the water cooler will shape your co-workers’ views of you, and posting online is no different. Companies are forbidden by law to hack into your personal social media accounts, but if you’re connected with your co-workers and your boss on social media, they’re going to see what you’ve been up to. Like obnoxious remarks in the office, intemperate posts can alienate colleagues and reflect badly on you as an individual.
Your behavior online can effect not just your current employment situation but also future opportunities. According to Patty Malenfant, rants on social media can signal to potential employers that you’re a highly emotional person. Fairly or not, they might decide they don’t want to work with someone who seems volatile or angry. HR professionals and hiring managers are often counselled not to look at a prospective employee’s social media accounts, to avoid being tainted by what they see there. At the same time, employment counselors suggest that you assume that prospective employers will be looking at your online presence. Erring on the side of discretion seems wise.
Entrepreneurs need to be even more circumspect about their social media sharing than employees. Small business owners like accountants or attorneys risk hurting their business by sharing intemperate political views. I’ve been surprised to see some nasty political comments posted here on LinkedIn, and my first reaction when I see something like that is, “remind me never to do business with this person.” For me it’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with a political position; it’s a question of not having the professionalism to stop yourself from ranting on a platform that’s about business relationships. Even on primarily social platforms like Facebook, entrepreneurs are likely to be connected with customers and potential customers; when the brand is you, you need to protect it everywhere.
If you want to exercise your right to free speech and share your political views on social media, these tips can help you maintain harmony with your employer and customers:
Review your company’s social media policy as well as any agreements you signed when you were hired. Make sure you understand your responsibilities.
Make it explicit that you don’t represent your company’s views. For example, some companies suggest that employees note “all Tweets are mine” on their Twitter accounts.
Before you post, stop and think how your conduct might affect your company’s reputation. It might not be clear in the heat of the moment, so take a step back and imagine how your comment might be perceived.
Be scrupulously honest. If you’re sharing an article or another post, do your best to vet it for accuracy. If you find you’ve inadvertently posted something that’s not true, delete it immediately. Don’t distort facts to suit your argument. Don’t post links to libelous, defamatory, or harassing content.
Don’t post racist, sexist, or homophobic content. You may think the “politically correct thing” has gone too far, but be aware that not everyone agrees with you.
Don’t be a total raving jerk. Make your point without name-calling, abuse, or insults. Watch your tone, even on your personal accounts. Don’t leverage your position to win an argument on social media. You may be tempted to blurt out, “I work for XYZ and I know for a fact what you’re saying is false” or “I’m a financial advisor/management consultant/HR specialist and I can confirm that this is not true.” Don’t. You’re dragging your company into a political argument, and that’s no good. Use the “head of HR test.” Imagine the head of HR of your company saw your social media posting, and imagine her response. If her response is “meh, I’d kinda rather you didn’t post about politics,” you’re probably safe. If her head explodes, don’t post it. If you’re self-employed, imagine a potential customer who does not share your political views, and imagine how they might respond to your post. Is it worth losing business over?
When in doubt, don’t. Whatever that thing is you’re dying to post on Facebook or Twitter likely isn’t that important in the greater scheme of things. Do you remember what you posted on Facebook last week? Probably not, but it’s still there and it still reflects you. If you’re uncomfortable about something you’re about to post, don’t post it.
Laura Brown, PhD, is the author of How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide (WW Norton).
How about you? Do you post about politics on social media? How often do you think about what your employer or customers might think about your political posts?
(This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.)