A couple months ago, I came across the following trending story on Buzzfeed.
A Twitter user had posted excitedly (and rather explicitly) that she’d landed an internship at NASA. After another user commented on her foul language, she responded even more explicitly.
Turns out, that commenter was on the National Space Council.
The woman reportedly lost her internship before it started. The council member said he wasn't involved in any hiring or firing, but he wrote in a later-deleted blog post that he learned their exchange had gotten back to NASA.
Sure, stories like these—about people who were fired or suffered career-related consequences for their online activities—are easy to brush off as rare events.
But they’re also an important reminder that your social media presence isn’t all that separate from your work life. And there are times when weighing in on an online conversation, posting something controversial, or sharing a specific viewpoint—even if it’s something we truly feel we need to express publicly—can get us into hot water professionally.
While this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t post anything at all, it does mean you should ask yourself a few questions to carefully consider any potential fallout—before you publish that social post.
1. What’s My Company’s Social Media Policy?
“Many companies now have a very specific policy outlining what is and is not allowed,” says Christie Artis, a Muse career coach who has 20 years of HR experience. This might include what happens if you break the rules, as well as guidelines for talking about your company online.
For example, according to an in-depth article on Hootsuite, Walmart’s social media policy says employees aren’t allowed to state that they speak for the company and are discouraged from responding to customer feedback from their own social accounts. And Best Buy’s policy outlines what employees should and shouldn’t disclose online, ending on this matter-of-fact note: “Basically, if you find yourself wondering if you can talk about something you learned at work—don’t.”
If you’re unsure what your company’s rules are, ask HR or your manager for the details.
One more thing worth noting: If you’re an at-will employee, you can be fired for any reason—for example, for posting something your company disagrees with. So it’s important to remember that labor laws don’t always have your back in cases like these.
2. Is This Something I’d Be Comfortable Having My Employer See?
If there are no clear-cut lines about what you can and can’t post online, you have to decide whether what you’re sharing is something you wouldn’t mind your company seeing.
Of course, it’s possible your co-workers or boss follow you on social media. But even if they don’t, it’s fairly easy for someone to stumble across your profile. So, proceed with caution.
“Even when you’re not working, you’re representing your company, and behaving professionally is good practice, which is why, in spite of some protections, it’s in your best interest to privatize any social media accounts you don’t want your employer to see,” Muse author Stacey Lastoe wrote in an article about talking politics at work.
3. Is Anything I’m Sharing Confidential or Sensitive Information?
Let me just say this: You know that you shouldn’t be sharing confidential company information anywhere, whether it’s online or offline. But it’s worth a reminder.
Off-limit social media topics, states Artis, include “new product launches, strategies, information about co-workers, clients, [and] customers, [as well as] leadership org announcements that have yet to be released formally to the media.” When in doubt, ask your boss or HR department before posting something that may be for internal use only.
All that said, “if you have positive things to post about your company, go for it!” emphasizes Artis. “As long as it is not proprietary or confidential…you can feel proud of where you work and your positive posts help your company be more successful, too.” In fact, many companies nowadays encourage their teams to post exciting updates or awards because it’s great PR—it’s an easy way to boost their image, advertise their product, and attract future talent.
4. Is This a Conversation I Need to Have Online?
It’s important to take a step back and think about why you’re commenting on or sharing certain things—not just for your career but whenever you go onto social media.
Having a voice (and using it) matters. But, there are moments when you have to evaluate where the best place is to let that voice be heard. In some cases, it makes sense to post on social media. In other cases, it makes more sense to talk offline or on other forums.
So, think about whether what you have to say can be said just as powerfully elsewhere. Maybe addressing it in person or over email initiates more honest conversation. Maybe there are only certain people who really need to see it (and not your entire Twitter following). Maybe it requires context and could be misread on Facebook (by your employer or a colleague).
Your online presence shouldn’t feel censored, but your feeds should be places where the right things are seen and understood by the right audiences.
5. Is This Conversation in Line With My Personal Brand?
Finally, it’s always smart to factor your personal brand into the mix.
Ask yourself: What is your personal brand? What are your goals in terms of your personal brand? And, how does this post align with those goals? If it feels out of character or inappropriate, maybe it’s not worth posting.
This is also key to consider if you’re a job seeker. “What you post follows you and becomes a part of your professional brand,” says Artis. So, it’s important to ask yourself whether what you’re posting could hurt or help your chances at landing your dream job—and if that’s a risk you’re willing to take.
This can feel like a lot to think about, but it all comes down to one thing: Make smart choices. It’s that simple.
You know your company’s stance on social media (and your own personal brand) best—which means you know deep down what’s really OK to post and what’s not.