5 Steps for Avoiding Online Career Blunders

By now, you’ve probably heard of Crystal Cox, the blogger who was sued for libel by Obsidian Financial Group after Cox wrote that some of their business practices were illegal. Cox is now required to pay $2.5 million because a judge ruled she was not a journalist and therefore not entitled to protect anonymous sources.

This is a scary story because one definitely gets the sense that Cox thought she was doing the right thing and had no intention of getting into hot water over it.  And I suspect that millions of casual social media consumers are in a similar boat right this minute.

Self-Censorship is Key

My rule of thumb for staying out of trouble online is not to post anything – anywhere – that you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing on the home page of Google, or that you wouldn’t want read by your grandmother or religious officiant.  This (usually) means no posts or images involving sex, drugs, or radical politics.

It’s Not Always Obvious

When you are employed with an organization, what you can and cannot post online takes on a whole new dimension.  In general, you should always think before you post, because there are the obvious no nos (such as not writing that you hate your company or that you are looking for a new job) and the not-so-obvious no nos (such as posting a company announcement on Facebook or giving a colleague a reference on LinkedIn).

Privacy Controls Are Not Everything

You are not excused from careful consideration if you make use of privacy controls on your social media networks, or if you don’t think you are “friends” with anyone who could disapprove.  This approach is by no means full proof.  As an example, a young professional I know in Chicago got fired after she called in sick but sent a live tweet to her friends from a Cubs game the same day.  One of her friends re-tweeted the remark, which eventually found its way back to the young professional’s boss.

Know the Rules

It is also critical that you understand that company’s policy when it comes to social media.  Hopefully, this is written down somewhere.  If you can’t find it, ask a contact in HR.  Otherwise, you could end up posting something that will cost you your job.  Even if you were completely in the dark and your intentions were totally innocent, at-will employment laws in most states mean that an organization doesn’t need a serious reason or in depth process to let you go.  And worse, if word gets around why you were fired, it may be difficult to secure another position because other organizations will be leery of your lack of discretion.

Thou Shall Not Resume-Blast or Defame

Staying out of trouble online involves more than just social media too.  When you’re job hunting, be aware that when you post your resume in a public place, you risk your boss or HR department discovering it while sourcing candidates.  And, in light of the example at the top of this post, please do not defame anyone on a website.  It may seem like a good way to let off some steam, but your comments could come back to haunt you – if not legally, then personally or professionally.

If you’re a bit freaked out by this advice, that’s good, because it means you will be more vigilant. Remember: if in doubt about a piece of information, keep it to yourself.

Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

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  • Chase

    Dear Alexandra,

    Great advice.  Yes, I am a professional writer/teacher myself, and I learned long ago that most people are nosy Rosey’s, and love nothing more than a juicy piece of gossip.  Secrets are rarely kept in this world, and, unfortunately even when you have studied various political or religious issues, many who didn’t will not appreciate your knowledge, and will even hold it against you.  One time, when I was marketing my short story, “The Most Dangerous Animal” about a man-eating leopard, an assistant editor wrote me back and said she didn’t like my story because there was a cobra in it–and there are no cobras in Africa, so she said.  I wrote her back telling her there were at least seven species of cobra in Africa, and her editor wrote me back and scolded me for correcting her.       I told him he should scold his assistant for being too lazy to look it up, as even a dictionary will tell you that a cobra is an Asian and African snake.   They didn’t care.  I went on to get it published in Lost Worlds, however, but it was one of many examples of how unprofessional people  can be.

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  • Chase

    Dear Alexandra,

    Great advice.  Yes, I am a professional writer/teacher myself, and I learned long ago that most people are nosy Rosey’s, and love nothing more than a juicy piece of gossip.  Secrets are rarely kept in this world, and, unfortunately even when you have studied various political or religious issues, many who didn’t will not appreciate your knowledge, and will even hold it against you.  One time, when I was marketing my short story, “The Most Dangerous Animal” about a man-eating leopard, an assistant editor wrote me back and said she didn’t like my story because there was a cobra in it–and there are no cobras in Africa, so she said.  I wrote her back telling her there were at least seven species of cobra in Africa, and her editor wrote me back and scolded me for correcting her.       I told him he should scold his assistant for being too lazy to look it up, as even a dictionary will tell you that a cobra is an Asian and African snake.   They didn’t care.  I went on to get it published in Lost Worlds, however, but it was one of many examples of how unprofessional people  can be.

    [Reply]

  • Anonymous

    @Chase:  I don’t know what’s worse – a ridiculous comment like that or the standard “it’s not right for us, but I’m sure you’ll have luck placing it somewhere else.”  Anyway, I’m so glad you got the story published somewhere else.

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