Watch out, your social media posts might cost you a job

A refresher on social media best practices as your posts may go against company views, especially during election season

For Anant Pujari, a marketing professional with a multinational in Mumbai, getting a job was a struggle, but not because he didn’t fit the desired role. It was because of his extremely vocal posts on social media, which was called out by prospective employers who refused to hire him if he wasn’t willing to change his online habits. For instance, he had shared images of his presence at the protests against the CAA-NRC Act in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, which did not go down well with recruiters.

“The first time it happened to me was five years ago,” says the 32-year-old. “I had no idea that my social media activity was being scrutinised. As someone who publicly posts about my political opinions, I got a bad rap from many employers who labelled my content offensive. Eventually, I had no option but to dumb down my activity on such platforms. I knew it would impact my career graph and I didn’t want to take a chance.”

In today’s digital-first world, one’s academic and professional achievements are not enough to score a job. An individual’s profile has also become a deciding factor in weeding out potential “bad” hires. One might post a comment on issues currently plaguing society or personal thoughts on the country’s political climate, hoping to start a conversation and get more likes/followers, but it’s hard to predict how the post might land.

In a US survey with 2,041 hiring managers, conducted in December 2022, by market research company Harris Poll on behalf of Express Employment Professionals (a leading staffing company in US and Canada), 88% of them admitted considering firing employees for the “objectionable” content they put out on their social media profiles. This includes writing something offensive, sharing sexually explicit material or revealing confidential information about the company.

“Social media is not the same as it was a decade ago,” says Bhakti Talati, an independent work-life balance coach from Mumbai. “Back then, it was mainly about connecting with friends. An individual’s social media account is more like their marketing tool. It has become an open platform to share not just their personal lives but also their opinion about anything under the sun.”

Know your circle

At a time when general elections in India are around the corner and sharply divergent views define social media, how does an existing employee or a potential entrant into a company keep themselves safe from employers’ judgements? What if an individual’s political ideology is starkly different from an employer’s?

An organisation must engage an employee for the competencies and skill sets they possess in achieving organisational goals, says Dr. Irfan A. Rizvi, professor of leadership and change management, International Management Institute, New Delhi.

“As long as an employee fulfils their contractual obligations, an employer has to respect and reward them for that. Beyond this, employers do not have any right to dictate what the employees do beyond office hours, the hobbies or interests they pursue, or even the philosophies and ideologies they subscribe to,” he says.

Until a few years ago, organisations laid out social media policies and expected employees to follow them. Common advice given to working professionals was to be mindful of what they posted on social media, lest it had professional consequences for them, says Neelima Chakara, executive coach and founder of PurposeLadder, a coaching organization that aims to increase the capacity and effectiveness of executives. “However, times have changed. The younger generation does not want their professional identities to overshadow their lives. They want to live with purpose and show up as their whole authentic selves in all forums, from the workplace to social media. In that spirit, youngsters are increasingly using social media as a means for public advocacy for social, environmental, and political issues,” she adds.

In a democratic country, each employee has a private and social life that must not be controlled by the employer, believes Dr Rizvi. “An employee must have absolute freedom to express themselves any which way they want in their personal and social space. The employer is neither responsible for such behaviours beyond office hours nor liable to them,” he points out.

Ideally, an employer must only intervene when the employee violates certain laws of the land for which they are responsible to the authorities. The problem arises when an employee wants their organisation to take a similar stand as theirs, or vice versa. It is a tricky terrain to navigate, reiterates Chakara.

“In a world that is getting more polarised by the day, how one shows up on social media may become a tool for exclusion or inclusion at the workplace. There may also be situations where organisations may alienate stakeholders and customers just as individuals may alienate bosses,” she notes.

A balancing act

It’s a Catch-22 situation for both employers and employees, so how does one safely navigate this grey area without landing in trouble?

Dr Rizvi believes an employee must know their legal rights as a citizen and insist upon being respected for it. In case an employee is hauled up for their views that are seemingly irksome to an employer, they must point out the absence of any clause in the employment contract that prohibits them from sharing their personal opinions.

“Even if there is a clause, an employee can challenge them to amend it in line with the directions by the Constitution of India. In case the employer continues to punish them for their views, the employee can take the matter to court,” he says.

Talati, on the other hand, advises employees to embrace social media with caution. When employees join an organisation, upholding its image is their responsibility. Thus, it’s important to read the company policy and refrain from posting anything that can damage its reputation. “If the company does not have a policy, ask for clarity. You should know which platforms and formats are covered in the policy. Is it okay to retweet a journalist or can it cause trouble?. If unsure about posting, check in with your leaders or HR team. Ask for their guidance,” she adds.

In case an employee decides to share their views on a controversial topic, the best way to do so is by putting forth opinions without using hurtful language. “Avoid posting when you are angry or having a bad day. It is likely to cause regret at a later stage. Also, most social platforms have settings to keep the account private or restrict content viewing to close friends. One can do this to safeguard themselves on social media,” advises Talati.

It’s also the responsibility of organisations to create a culture of tolerance and respect for diverse views, says Chakara.

“Employers must create spaces where open dialogue can happen. The opportunity to share thoughts in a non-judgmental space and hear alternate perspectives can foster tolerance, empathy and compassion,” she reiterates.

At the end of the day, an employer must provide its employees with psychological safety to express themselves freely and fearlessly, reiterates Dr Rizvi. “When an employee’s voice isn’t heard, whether for the right or wrong reasons, and no one expresses empathy towards them, they are forced to cry out loud on social media. This also draws unwarranted attention which is eventually detrimental to both the employee and employer.”

Geetika Sachdev is a Delhi-based journalist.

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