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When you’re feeling frustrated, stressed or just need to vent, it can be tempting to turn to social media as an outlet. In your personal life, what you choose to post is entirely your decision. When it comes to your professional life, though, the standards for what’s acceptable to share on social media can be very different. 

Here, we’ll arm you with what you need to know when it comes to employers and social media. We’ll talk through some of the basic social media rules for employees and help you understand your rights so you don’t make a mistake with that Facebook post or Tweet that could cost you your job. 

What Are the Rights for Employers and Social Media?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t so cut and dry. You’ve probably heard horror stories about employees who have been fired for making negative comments about their employer on social media, and in turn have sued their employer.

In many cases, the rights of an employer to create social media rules for employees will depend on the state and the particular circumstances, however, there are some national-level guidelines and existing case law we can turn to draw conclusions about an employer’s legal reach in this area.  

For starters, an employer can dictate whether you use social media while on the job. It’s within a company’s rights to prohibit social media use on work computers and company-issued mobile devices, and doing so against your employer’s policy can result in discipline or termination. 

When it comes to your personal devices, things get a little murkier. A lot depends on the terms of employment that are outlined when you take the job. 

For example, in a Georgia case, a court ruled that an employer was within its rights to access any information “left on or transmitted over” their networks because this expectation was explicitly outlined in its employee manual. So, if your company has a similar policy, they could legally access your Facebook messages or other communications you sent while logged onto their WiFi network.

Like many cases in this arena, this one hinged on the employer outlining their expectations ahead of time in a social media policy. A company can—and should—have a social media policy, but there are some things that it can’t legally dictate. We’ll cover that next. 

Your Right to ‘Protected Concerted Activity’

The idea of ‘protected concerted activity’ is at the core of what’s legal and what’s not when employers set social media rules for employees. 

The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of workers to engage in concerted activity that has an eye toward improving workplace conditions, like comparing notes on wages, discussing work hours, etc. This act was established in 1935 to encourage collective bargaining, but it has since been applied to include everything from Facebook posts, group texts, and more. 

If you simply post about how you hate your company, you might run into a problem. On the other hand, if you share specifics about how much money you make and a coworker comments weighing in with how much they make and discussing how you might negotiate for more money, this post would be considered protected concerted activity that your employer cannot use as a reason for termination. 

Similarly, if you’ve had a rough day and you Tweet about how frustrating it is to work long hours standing on your feet all day, this would be protected as it discusses working conditions that, arguably, could be proven to be true. Additionally, if you Tweet a statement that you know to be false, like an accusation that your company uses overseas child labor, it would be grounds for termination.

It’s important here to note the distinction between venting about your work conditions (protected) and aimlessly disparaging your company, boss or coworkers (not protected). So, your Tweets about your boss forcing you to work double overtime are protected, but your Instagram story making fun of his speech impediment or saying that she smells funny are not. 

What You Can’t Post

Now that we have a foundation for what kind of work-related speech is protected on social media, let’s cover some types of activity that are not protected. Whether or not these posts have anything to do with your job, if you engage in these types of social media activities, your employer is likely within their rights to discipline or terminate you. 

  • Posting about or sharing photos of yourself participating in illegal activities
  • Posting discriminatory, racist or homophobic remarks
  • Engaging in sexual harassment
  • Making violent threats
  • Spewing hate speech
  • Encouraging insubordination among colleagues
  • Disclosure of proprietary, financial, marketing or other confidential business information that’s not tied to the terms of your employment
  • Posting confidential information about clients
  • Revealing trade secrets
  • ‘Liking’ posts that involve any of the above (although this is more of a gray area)

When in doubt, refer to your employee handbook and the social media policy. In the unfortunate event that something you post on social media lands you in hot water with your company, this document will carry a lot of weight in determining whether they have the grounds for termination. It’s easier said than done, but if you’re unsure of something you’re about to post, your best bet is to hold off if you want to protect your job. 

What About Social Media for Job Seekers?

If you’re job searching, you have a whole different can of worms to deal with when it comes to social media. 

When you’re already employed, your company’s biggest concern will be with things you’re posting now. If you’re hoping to get a job offer, though, there’s no telling what kind of content a prospective employer might dig up from your social media past. 

Many candidates want to know, is it legal for a company to use social media in the hiring process? The short answer is yes, it’s perfectly legal. And in fact, 70% of employers do it. As long as a company doesn’t use their social media findings to discriminate based on race, gender or religion, there are no laws prohibiting employers from eliminating a candidate from the running due to something they saw in a Facebook post or on an Instagram feed. 

As a job seeker, follow these four tips to keep your social profiles employer-friendly.

1. Put your best face forward

If an employer types your name into the Facebook search bar, make sure the first thing they see isn’t that picture from your bachelor party where you’re three sheets to the wind or a picture of your cat. Instead, put your best face forward by using a clear, quality headshot as your profile picture. Family photos and other G-rated pics are fine, too. 

2. Clean up old photos

Facebook in particular is notorious for housing a treasure trove of old photos, many of which you probably wouldn’t want your mom to see let alone a hiring manager. Before you hit ‘send’ on that application, spend an hour or two going back through the archives and untagging any unsavory shots. 

Related: How to Clean Up Your Social Media

3. Step up your privacy settings

If you’re someone who likes to use social media to get into heated moral debates or re-pin politically incorrect memes, you might want to consider tightening up the settings on what strangers can see.

4. Don’t completely lock down your social media presence

57% of employers are less likely to contact applicants who lack any online presence whatsoever. When someone Googles you, you want them to be able to find some information that demonstrates you’re a living, breathing human, and preferably positive information. . 

To help facilitate this, consider keeping at least one public-facing profile that you maintain with hiring managers in mind, such as LinkedIn. Share job-related news, industry updates, your take on market trends, and other content that will establish you as knowledgeable in your field. A bonus is that you can use it to network with others in your field and potentially even learn about additional job opportunities. 

Related: Do You Need a Digital Resume?

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn