Your Opinions Can Get You Fired: Think First Before Posting, Texting, Tweeting and Emailing

When I published my first book, Lessons Unlearned, last month, I didn’t intend to start a conversation about free speech in the workplace. But I’ve received a number of comments about 2 sections of my book related to how sharing your thoughts can threaten your job security, and there are some items in the news this week that made me think this a worthy topic for a blog, even if it is outside customer service.

Here are the two topics in my book that people keep commenting on:

  • I talk about using a “magic slate” for stress relief when dealing with difficult customers because you can scribble a word that describes the customer, show it to your cube mates to elicit empathy and release some stress, then lift the plastic sheet to erase what you have written, eliminating any audit trail. This hit a nerve with multiple readers, who say it is politically incorrect to criticize customers at their company, regardless how irrational their behavior is. I learned early in my career that making rude, however accurate, comments about customers in case notes will definitely get you in trouble.
  • In the chapter on startups, I talk about the importance of establishing company culture, and how one company I worked for destroyed its culture by shutting down the email system one weekend, reading everyone’s email archives, and firing anyone who had made a negative comment about management in an internal email. While clearly this company had some unhappy employees, this didn’t fix the problem, it only inflamed it, making all employees paranoid and distrustful of management.

I think most of us have an internal editor that keeps us from going too far in emails, blog posts, Facebook posts, Tweets, text messages, etc. We’ve all probably typed something in anger and regretted sending it later, and I try really hard to not hit ‘send’ on ‘flame’ emails until I’ve had time to calm down and re-read my text. As a manager, I’ve certainly encountered problems when employees were rude or indiscreet in written communications, and typically I am pretty understanding and counsel them to go ahead and write down the frustration, which helps purge you of the stress, but definitely don’t send or post until later.

There are two things in the news this week that make me think this is going to be a bigger problem for future managers than I ever experienced in the past. The first is a story in today’s San Jose Mercury News that a sales executive is leaving a major Silicon Valley high tech firm for texting opinions about the company that not only weren’t outrageous, they reflect the opinion of many analysts and technology reporters. I suppose I can understand why the executive needed to leave, but this wasn’t a company email or statement to the press, this was a personal text message he never intended anyone else to see. Definitely worrisome, and I hope the company learned something about the importance of internal marketing.

The other story in the news this week is that Facebook is exploring options to allow kids under 13 to join. Now, my friends with kids tell me they are all on Facebook already, registered using 5-10 year lies on birth year to get around current restrictions. Be that as it may, if I, in my 40s, have yet to learn to self-edit 100% of the time, how can we expect kids to know what is safe to post and what isn’t, knowing that every single word and picture will follow them around on the internet for the rest of their lives? There is even pending legislation being discussed because some employers and schools have demanded that applicants hand over their Facebook passwords so they can view their profiles before hiring or admitting them. Big brother is watching.

As a child of the 70s, I grew up being told to express myself and revel in free speech. And I do. But there were also some common sense limitations to this, such as not discussing topics that are incendiary (politics and religion), and not to put anything in writing you don’t want your mother to read. Those common sense limitations don’t seem to have made it to the younger generations.

I’m sometimes shocked at the political and religious comments made by people I’ve known for years. In polite conversation, we usually avoid topics that are controversial, but that internal edit doesn’t seem to apply to Facebook. I’ve “unfriended” several people who I genuinely like, and interact with in real life, because I can’t stand to read their off-the-deep-end political views. I have one friend who spends his days at work posting comments about how much he hates his job and how stupid his boss is. When I asked him if he was concerned about being fired for those posts, his reply was, “I don’t share my posts with my boss.” Well, all it takes is someone to print out pages and pages of those posts and mail to him, and next stop is unemployment. I’m sure the software sales exec who lost his job this week had no idea that the personal text message he sent would come back to haunt him.

Bottom line, be careful what you post, email, Tweet, whatever. Here are John’s rules to not letting social networking destroy your livelihood:

  • Think before you post. Writing your frustrations down is a great way to vent, but take an hour and think about it before hitting ‘send.’
  • Don’t social network after drinking. On Mondays I look at pictures and comments posted by friends over the weekend, and there is usually something really embarrassing from 2am on Sunday morning. Once posted, it is really hard to delete.
  • Steer clear on overly controversial subjects. If you wouldn’t express that opinion in the company lunchroom for all to hear, maybe Tweeting it isn’t the best career move. You can believe what you want on your own time, but realistically, people will judge you for outrageous views, especially narrow-minded views. If you really believe “the earth is flat” keep it to yourself.
  • Your ultimate distribution list is larger than you think. Don’t think for a second that your text won’t be forwarded or that ‘non friends’ will never see your Facebook posts. In 2012, that is extremely naive.

What do you think? What are your rules about what to post and what not to post? What are your pet peeves about “over sharing?” Have you changed an opinion about a friend or co-workers based on social posts? If you have kids, what advice do you give them? And as always, thanks for reading!

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4 Comments on “Your Opinions Can Get You Fired: Think First Before Posting, Texting, Tweeting and Emailing”

  1. “This hit a nerve with multiple readers, who say it is politically incorrect to criticize customers at their company, regardless how irrational their behavior is.”

    I think the Magic Slate is a brilliant way of dealing with “ld10t” and “PEBKAC” problems. I think it’s right for companies to expect that all customers will be treated with respect and dignity, but expecting that one won’t ever drive team members a little crazy seems like it undermines the staff.

  2. Dave Kellogg Says:

    As Charlie Sheen says on the use of his publicist: I need someone between me and send at 3am.

  3. Leo Daley Says:

    I thought better of a post I drafted on my experience working with (some) anonymous analysts on case studies and such. Actually, one of my team members charged into my office, eyes bulging, and breathlessly cried, “DON’T POST THAT!” So I didn’t. Hell, even posting this comment has me a little freaked.

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