Everyone’s watching you on social media, so smarten up

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this photo illustration from 2013. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Every week, it seems, someone, somewhere is getting fired, demoted or suspended for blurting something they shouldn’t on social media.

Surely, ESPN anchor Jemele Hill knew what would come next after a series of tweets critical of NFL team owners who outlawed silent player protests during pregame anthems.

Apparently not. The sports network issued a two-week suspension last week to Ms. Hill, who was already on notice for earlier tweets calling U.S. President Donald Trump a “bigot” and “a white supremacist.” ESPN said she had violated the company’s social-media guidelines.

Ms. Hill, who has nearly 820,000 Twitter followers, is the latest in a distressingly long list of people burned by their overactive social-media life. For too many, the impulse to tweet, post, share and otherwise expose oneself to the world has become an addiction. They just can’t stop themselves.

Sometimes, the transgressions are blatantly reckless. Take former Toronto Transit Commission employee Pranav Bedi, who in 2013 called in sick and then jetted to Las Vegas.

“Vegas Tonight!” Mr. Bedi shared with his Facebook friends. “Brother’s bachelor party is gonna be fun! OMG can’t wait!”

Unsurprisingly, the TTC promptly fired Mr. Bedi – a decision that was later upheld by an Ontario labour arbitrator.

A word of advice: using “OMG” and multiple exclamation marks in a post is a warning sign. Delete immediately.

Online behaviour can still be inappropriate and career-limiting, even if it’s not a firing offence. Earlier this year, the CBC “reassigned” Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of flagship news show The National, after he joined a controversial Twitter conversation late one evening, endorsing more cultural appropriation in Canadian literature.

Mr. Ladurantaye, a former Globe and Mail reporter and social-media strategist at Twitter, had once famously warned fellow journalists that “you are one tweet away from being fired.”

Until Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn came along, the sharing of random thoughts was in the realm of innocuous and, largely private, banter. Now, it’s like broadcasting your synapses to everyone, with a digital record stored in perpetuity.

The line between what’s public and private is badly blurred in the new thought-sharing economy, creating a legal quagmire for both employees and employers. There are issues of privacy, confidentiality, human rights, free speech, labour laws and workplace codes of conduct.

And it has spawned a burgeoning social-media advice industry. Google the phrase “social media in the workplace” and you’ll find a torrent of advice from lawyers, human-resources experts and others.

A lot of this stuff should be pretty obvious. Facebook “friends” are not necessarily your friends, in the true sense of the word. Likewise, you may think you’re sharing a brainwave with your 63 Twitter followers – until @realDonaldTrump (40.5-million followers) retweets you. And not everyone who sees your profile on LinkedIn wants to offer you a dream job. They may want the job you have now, or even to deny you your next one.

Many companies are responding with explicit policies about what employees can and can’t do, even on their private social-media accounts. And adherence to these codes may one day be used in courts, tribunals and arbitration proceedings.

The Globe and Mail’s new editorial code of conduct, for example, states: “Do not post partisan, defamatory and clearly false material” on social-media platforms, and that “hate speech and personal attacks … are unacceptable.”

Recruiters are routinely scouring the web and social-media posts. Some are even asking prospective employees for their social-media passwords, looking for evidence of past behaviour that might make a candidate unfit for a particular job. Radical views, as well as sexist and racist comments, on social media can all come back to haunt you, even years later.

Companies and organizations are drawn to the marketing potential of social media. But what happens on their social-media accounts can lead to trouble.

In another case involving the TTC, a labour arbitrator faulted the agency last year for not deleting offensive, racist, sexist and homophobic comments about TTC workers posted by riders on its Twitter feeds.

Indeed, you may be just a tweet away from losing your job or your reputation.

So tweet carefully.

Editor's Note: A reference to an Ontario human-rights arbitrator has been corrected to a labour arbitrator in the online version of this story.