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People raise their glasses in a toast at a luncheon for members of the wine press in New York October 30, 2007.
People raise their glasses in a toast at a luncheon for members of the wine press in New York October 30, 2007.

TONY WILSON

Four easy steps will save your reputation Add to ...

Teenagers and twentysomethings are not the only ones who engage in career-limiting moves through their use and misuse of social media. Executives, lawyers and even judges seem to be doing a better job of doing a bad job of managing their online reputations.

If you’re in business, you should be aware of the perils of oversharing on social media, even if you think it’s innocuous or promotional.

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Here’s a perfect example of what can go wrong:

Earlier this year, Hewlett Packard vice-president Scott McLellan updated his LinkedIn profile to include this description of what he did with HP: Website and User/Developer Experience, Future HP 'cloud' website including the public content and authenticated user content. APIs and language bindings for Java, Ruby, and other open source languages. Fully functional GUI and CLI [command line interface](both Linux/Unix and Windows).

He also used terms in his LinkedIn update such as “object store,” “compute,” “networking,” “block storage” and other words that people in the technology sector understood – namely, HP was building cloud-computing infrastructure analogous to Amazon’s “elastic block storage” service. The words he used so innocuously in his LinkedIn update revealed to his competitors not only what direction HP was going in with cloud computing, but also what direction HP wasn’t going in.

It may be a few years old, but story of the executive who landed in Memphis and tweeted disparagingly about the city is also worth repeating. He had no idea one of his followers happened to work with one his firm’s biggest clients, FedEx, which has its head office in Memphis. Needless to say, FedEx wasn’t impressed.

Within a year, Lady Shelly Sawers, who was the wife of the chief of Britain’s spy agency Mi6, had disclosed on her Facebook page the location of her family’s holiday to her circle of 76 ‘friends’ and posted pictures that could identify her, and her friends and family, to any terrorist organization that might be interested. And, of course, she had no privacy settings on her profile.

In January of this year, Kenneth Cole, the clothing retailer, tweeted about the revolution in Egypt, where people were actually dying in the streets, and said: “Millions in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumour is they heard our new spring collection is now available online…” It backfired horribly and Kenneth Cole was forced to apologize.

Although businesses rush to their lawyers when they have legal problems with breaches of confidentiality and lapses of Internet judgment, the legal profession is also having its Come to Jesus moments with the use and misuse of social media, which is alarming to see given the profession’s obligation to keep client information confidential.

One U.S. defence lawyer tweeted this to his followers last year: “This stupid kid is taking the rap for his drug-dealing dirtbag of an older brother because ‘he’s no snitch.’” Another called a judge he was arguing a case before an “Evil Unfair witch … unfit to hold position of judge” in a tweet.

In 2009, a Texas lawyer asked for an adjournment on a case because he had to attend a family funeral. The judge granted it, but later checked the lawyer’s Facebook profile – which was public. The profile contained pictures of him partying and drinking during a motorcycle trip that happened when he should have been in court. The judge referred the lawyer’s improper conduct to his senior partner and advised him that he would never get another adjournment from that court.

These incidents happen to judges, too. A Magistrate in Shropshire, England had to resign after tweeting about the cases before him. Said one tweet: “Just about to hear application from three robbers from Manchester as to whether to remand or not.” And in another: “Called into court today to deal with those arrested last night and held in custody. I guess they will be mostly drunks but you never know.”

So there are at least four important lessons here.

  1. It’s not just teenagers who damage their reputations using social media. If you’re in business, the legal profession or any other sector in which confidentiality is of the utmost importance, what you say online can be used by your competitors or others to the detriment of your company and your career. “Should I be tweeting at all?” has to be the first question you ask yourself.
  2. The damage can be done without you realizing it. Even the most harmless comments within something as mundane as a job description or a status update can reveal to others whose job it is to keep an eye on you, a new process or technology. So if you’re in high-tech, be careful what you say about what you do, especially on LinkedIn.
  3. It’s important to have social media policies in place within your organization so that all employees, from the CEO down, are conscious of the blunders they can make by even the most innocuous updates or posts. Employees should be made aware that breach of these policies will have serious consequences, including the possibility of dismissal. These policies can and should be incorporated within employment agreements.
  4. Someone within the organization should be tasked with regularly educating employees from the CEO down on the hazards of social media use, including updates on the horror stories that are reported in the media every day.

Otherwise, the next story to hit the business pages about a breach of confidentiality through Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn could be all about you.

Tony Wilson practices franchising, licensing and intellectual property law at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, and he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. His newest book, Manage Your Online Reputation , was recently published. His column appears every other Tuesday on the Report on Small Business website.

Join The Globe’s Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT

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