Facebook, uTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn are well-known.  Most of us use these forms of social media to connect with family and friends, and to network with other professionals.  We share photos, ideas, and what is happening in our lives.

Too much information, or the wrong kind of information, on these platforms can yield unexpected, often bad, consequences—both in the short-term and long-term.  In this paper, we’ll cover some sound practices for productive use of social media, and suggest some steps you can take to ensure a positive social media experience.

√       Employees and job-seekers

By June 2013, 11 states enacted various social media laws in an attempt to protect employees and/or job-seekers from being subjected to adverse employment actions based on the content of their social media.  Former, current, and prospective employers are starting to make more use of Internet searches to check out what individuals are doing.  We’ve all heard stories of the employee who called in sick only to be terminated after the employer saw “vacation” photos posted to the Internet by the employee for that same time period.

And, keep in mind, regardless of your age (junior high, high school, college, vocational school), what you post today can have consequences with your peers in the short-term, and with employers in the long-term.  You should be aware that police departments and school administrators have intensified their searches of social media sites. According to a 2013 survey, the three top reasons job applicants were turned down for positions were because they posted (1) provocative or inappropriate photographs or information, (2) information about the applicant drinking or using drugs, or (3) disparaging remarks about previous employers.

●      “My life is an open book” or “Don’t be so serious”

Some folks post to the Internet with the mindset, “My life is an open book. People can take it or leave it.  I am who I am.  They are just too serious.”

Here, it is important to realize a couple of things.  First, while you may be an “open” person—you are just venting your feelings, exhibiting who you are as a person, or exercising your right to speak freely—don’t assume others will agree with you, appreciate your “openness,” or not use what you have posted in a manner that will hurt you down the road professionally or personally.

Second, although your feelings or opinions may change over time, what you post at a particular point in time on the Internet will remain somewhere on the Internet . . . forever.  There is no “delete” button.

It is better to think through what you are posting regardless of whether it is a questionable photo of yourself, or writing something personal and putting it out there for the world to see.  The only person you can fully control is yourself—you will never be able to control what other people do or say about the information you have posted, or whether they use that information to your detriment today, a year from now, or ten years from now.

●      “You’ve made me angry—I’ll show you”

This group of folks uses the Internet to lash out at others.  Some people in this category post slurs or discriminatory views attacking others because of how they look or where they come from.  Others view the Internet as an outlet to harass people—poking fun at them, spreading gossip or malicious rumors, or trying to otherwise damage their reputations or cause them harm.

Starting with discrimination, each of us holds opinions on any number of issues important to us.  These range from a favorite sports team, restaurant, or beach to opinions related to marriage, the environment, religion, politics, race, immigration, and so on.  Each of us is entitled to hold our opinions, whatever they are.  And, we are entitled to express them.  However, there is a difference in expressing an opinion on an issue, and maliciously attacking others who disagree.  Using the Internet for the later will never work in your favor.  Holding the view that you are “right” and everyone else is “wrong” doesn’t make it so.

Under other circumstances, where you’ve had a falling out with a boss, co-worker, friend, acquaintance, family member, peer at school, or neighbor, posting threatening, harmful, or otherwise inappropriate comments on the Internet is never a good idea.  The fact that you don’t like someone, or what someone has done, is your prerogative, but it is not your prerogative to actively engage in malicious conduct through the Internet designed to harm that person.

If you’ve got a problem at work or school, talk to a counselor or trusted mentor to see how things can be amicably resolved.  Resolution of more serious workplace issues is achieved through your company’s grievance procedures or, if perceived discrimination is at issue, through filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.  Similarly, every school will have counselors and procedures for addressing conflicts between students, or between teachers and students.  And, if you feel discriminated against at school, you also may file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

If you’ve got a problem with someone outside of work or school, there are alternatives to mindless ranting on the Internet.  If you feel physically threatened by the person, or if you’ve suffered damage to your property because of the person, go to the police and file a report.

If you’re mad at someone, and the person is not important in your life or a required part of your life, then don’t have anything further to do with the person.  If this person is important to you, or is a continuing part of your life, talk to a trusted friend or family member who is not involved in the dispute to explore solutions to the distress you are experiencing.  In the grander scheme of things, the vast majority of disputes between people can be resolved simply by speaking to each other in person and sharing how they feel.

In the end, it is important to consider that lambasting an individual on the Internet does nothing to resolve a problem and, in serious cases, it will lead to the imposition of serious criminal penalties (fines and/or imprisonment) and civil money damages against you.

√       Employers

Often, employers research a job applicant’s (or employee’s) social media information because they want to know as much about him or her as possible. This is problematic for a variety of reasons.  First, this social media trolling can lead to an employer having access to discriminatory information.  The employer can determine (or assume) certain things about the employee or job seeker, such as race, gender, pregnancy, medical information, genetic information, disability, age, religion, and national origin based on the candidate’s social media postings.  This, in turn, can lead to adverse employment actions, i.e. non-selection, non-promotion, and/or termination, of an individual for illegal reasons.

For example, an employer may say, “He is in a wheelchair and we don’t have the resources to deal with that,” or “I commend the fact that she participates in Running for the Cure for Breast Cancer, but we don’t want to incur extra medical expenses.”  It is highly-problematic for employers to make assumptions about a job candidate or employee, his or her lifestyle, family, or friends, based on information gathered from social media sites.  Indeed, these assumptions may lead an employer to engage in prohibited discrimination.

In some instances, employers may see malicious postings by third parties to someone else’s pages.  This is a very serious problem.  Hacking Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media pages is not unheard of, and it can have terrible consequences for the victim as well as for the employer that uses the misinformation from these malicious postings to make employment decisions affecting the victim.

Employers must be aware of state laws pertaining to their use of social media in conducting background checks, and of the potential pitfalls when an employer’s adverse employment decisions are based on material gleaned from social media.

As permitted by state law, if an employer insists on using social media to inform its decisions regarding a job candidate (selection) or employee (promotion, termination, and the like), then it should take the following steps to ensure proper use of social media information:

●      Written policies and procedures should be in place addressing when, what, how, and by whom social media information is reviewed.  Employers must be consistent about what information is gathered from social media sites.

●      Employers must document what social media information is considered and what prohibited information is not gathered and considered (i.e. information pertaining to an individual’s sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, and the like).

●      Employers should verify the information gathered from social media is necessary, and that the information is not the product of malicious postings.

√             About the author

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Partner of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of compliance and civil rights investigations to state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, and non-profit organizations.  To that end, she offers Webinars, full-day and half-day in-person training sessions, assistance developing procedures, and mediation services addressing a variety of types of discrimination such as racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination.  The federal law on discrimination is complex and affects our workplaces as well as the delivery of our federally funded programs and activities.  Her book, Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI Related Laws:  From Intake to Final Determination, has been described as an “eye-opening” reading experience and a “stand-alone” training resource.   Ms. Foster’s resources and materials are designed to support the work of civil rights and discrimination professionals in the public and private sectors.  You may contact her through www.titleviconsulting.com.