Are you stressed about getting fired for what you post on social media? With the explosion of social networking websites over the past twenty years, there’s no denying that people all over the world now lead double lives each day, that is, one online and one in real life.
What used to be said and discussed and debated among friends and coworkers in bars and coffee shops have now been supplanted and overtaken by often toxic chatter on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Employees who used to enjoy complaining about their workplace or their boss over beers at a bar are now finding themselves in a bind online. Unlike informal chatter between friends that could include complaints about their jobs, what is said and done online can have a reach far beyond a flippant remark made about the boss after one too many martinis.
Tweets and status updates can be screenshotted and preserved forever and shared online so easily now, meaning a fleeting thought shared online in anger can go viral and spiral out of your control.
Angry social media post
That fleeting, momentary burst of frustration that compelled an angry social media post may pass quickly, but the damage such posts can cause, intentionally or otherwise, might be impossible to predict. Even if the audience you share those thoughts with is composed of friends and family, what you do and say online can become a public spectacle, nonetheless. But that raises an important and big question that gets typed into Google hundreds of thousands of times a day: Can I get fired for what I post on social media?
For employers and companies and governments, the negative publicity from such a spectacle might be enough to fire you from your job, no matter what social media policies they devise and compel workers to follow. If an errant tweet or particularly nasty status update on Facebook lands your employer on the front page of newspapers, the old adage about all publicity being good publicity goes out the window, with you getting tossed out soon after.
Employment Contracts and Social Media Behaviour
While your employment contract might predate the advent of social media or even the internet, termination clauses can cover a range of different conduct both at work and off-work hours. If your employment contract doesn’t include language specific to social media behaviour, that doesn’t mean what you do online is all fair game when it comes to getting fired. If you post a status update about how you hate your incompetent boss, there’s little doubt that if that comment gets back to them they’ll fire you for insubordination, or cause, as it’s known.
However, simply disparaging or being critical of your boss or your company or your coworkers may not be enough to justify getting fired. More than likely, the employer will have to show that the comments were serious enough to harm the business through reputational damage in the eyes of the public.
That being said, if a comment or statement made online can be construed as racist, homophobic, sexist, or discriminatory in any number of ways, most employers would have little choice but to fire you. It may sound like a chilling consequence of exercising your free speech online, but freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences for what you say and do online or otherwise. Your off-duty conduct, in other words, can reflect poorly on your employer and harm their legitimate business interests simply by association.
Therefore, harming your company’s reputation by posting something hateful or inappropriate online may be grounds for termination no matter if you posted it from home or during office hours.
Fired for Social Media Posts in Canada
There are numerous examples of people in Canada who have been fired for things they’ve posted online. In 2013, there were two firefighters from Toronto who got fired after posting offensive tweets about women, which went against the City of Toronto’s social media policy. While both men appealed their dismissals, only one of them got their job back.
Also in 2013, a worker at a Toronto-area Mr. Lube got into trouble after Tweeting out that he needed to buy marijuana and sought out a dealer in a very public manner, which caught the attention of police. The employee was reportedly fired after the local police force retweeted his plea for a spliff. (This was a few years before Canada legalized marijuana, of course.)
Posting anonymously doesn’t make people immune to harsh consequences for their online behaviour either. A man whose name was never released was reportedly fired in 2012 from a men’s clothing retailer when he was unmasked as a troll who posted awful and hurtful things on a memorial website for a teenage girl who was bullied into committing suicide. Someone tracked the man down somehow and informed his employer, who had little choice but to let him go.
High-profile people, meanwhile, should likely be more cautious than the average person whose online reach may be small and limited to a circle of close friends. For example, there was sports broadcaster Damian Goddard who was fired for a Tweet in 2011 where he expressed support for a hockey player who had come out against gay marriage. His employer, Rogers, showed him the door and assured the public that Goddard’s tweet was not reflective of the network’s attitudes.
Can I get fired for what I post on social media?
Those working with kids also need to be extra careful about what they post online. For a minor hockey coach named Chris Sandau from British Columbia, it was his Facebook page that got him put on ice by a minor hockey league. Sandau’s page reportedly included swastikas and pictures of Hitler as well as material denying the Holocaust. It should go without saying that expressing admiration for Hitler and denying the Holocaust on Facebook or anywhere for that matter will get you fired, and soon even jailed in Canada.
Other examples are not as extreme as Sandau’s, but still offer important lessons to anyone about to tweet or post online out of anger or foolishness or ignorance, or any combination of those three. There was a Canada Post employee who had been with the service for three decades who was fired for dozens of posts mocking and deriding her bosses at the Edmonton post office where she worked. It also doesn’t just happen to one employee at a time. In 2007, a group of seven grocery chain employees in Ottawa lost their jobs for posts on an online forum. The group apparently posted about verbally attacking customers and staff, though the company claimed the group was fired over their disrespect shown to the chain’s customers.
The phenomenon of getting fired for errant social media posts may be relatively new, but extreme examples abound. There was the case of Justine Sacco, who posted a tweet from an airplane about going to Africa and hoping she didn’t get AIDS. After getting off a marathon flight, her phone blew up and to her horror, her bad and insensitive joke had made the rounds online and gone viral in a way that was hard to imagine back in 2015.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Her story is featured prominently in the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” by British journalist Jon Ronson, who told Rolling Stone magazine that Sacco’s story revealed how social media empowers a dangerous mob mentality that victimizes undeserving people for simple mistakes.
What becomes clear after considering all the examples of people getting fired for what they post on the internet is that you never know how the real world will react to your online conduct. If you tweet out a bad joke to your twenty followers, you may not have to worry about losing your job or getting horrifically publicly shamed, but as Sacco found out, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Corporate and Government Social Media Policies
The above examples may be many years old, but they are perhaps reflective of how social media awareness has evolved over time in not only Canada but the rest of the world as well. Back then, it might’ve been tough to predict how a status update or tweet would go over in public, especially if it went viral and around the world unexpectedly.
Private companies and governments, in response, have had to formulate their own social media policies governing how employees conduct themselves online on their free time and while on the job. Company-wide policies apply to everyone, from the CEO to the janitor. For governments though, each department or ministry often has its own policy depending on the sensitivity of the work involved. Intelligence agencies, police forces, and military personnel are under unique pressures when it comes to social media since revealing anything publicly online about their work could harm investigations and even national security.
In British Columbia, for example, the social media policy for government employees warns against using social media in conjunction with their public service positions to amplify or lend credibility to opinions they express online. For instance, a ministry of environment employee shouldn’t go to a climate change protest and come out against deforestation using their government credentials to bolster their personal views on the subject. The same thinking applies to social media, whether it’s posting to Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit.
Behave with professionalism and courtesy
In the United States and the United Kingdom, government employees are also under special obligations when using social media in their official capacities and in their personal lives. The U.S. Department of Commerce, for example, compels workers to behave with professionalism and courtesy and honesty in communications with the public no matter which medium is being used. Workers posting online must identify themselves with their official titles and must ensure that what they post is factual and accurate.
Similarly, government workers in the U.K. are obligated to use social media in a responsible way that doesn’t reveal official information without authorization. The U.K. government’s policy warns of the blurred lines between personal and professional conduct using social media since it’s a public forum accessible the world over.
The U.K. government’s policy for social media use encourages mindfulness and carefulness when posting online and expressly warns against making personal attacks or using offensive or profane language. As well, workers are told to avoid making public statements about controversial political topics.
Most government social media policies share many common threads. Workers are to avoid conflicts of interest and ensure what they post is accurate, while also obligating them to correct any mistakes in public posts as soon as they become aware. Civil servants are told to use common sense when conducting themselves online since once a post goes out into the online world, it can be preserved and circulated in perpetuity with little hope of removing it should a controversy erupt as a result.
Can I be fired for what I post on social media?
It’s clear that our online presence is now part of the overall social fabric, deeply woven in with our personal and professional lives. The subjective nature of opinions and changing societal attitudes about our relationships with technology often make it difficult to determine with any certainty what is acceptable and what is not.
But with a litany of examples of how people have been fired for what they post on social media in Canada and elsewhere, it’s somewhat easy to figure out how to avoid certain pitfalls. Avoid profanity and personal attacks. Don’t post mean-spirited attacks on others, especially if you’re a public employee who can be tied back to a public institution or government.
The danger of this, however, is that fear of repercussions at your job for what you post on social media could lead to a widespread practice of self-censorship and a chilling effect on freedom of speech. If you do end up finding yourself out of a job for a flippant or tasteless post on Facebook or Twitter, getting an employment lawyer is your best bet to make sure you weren’t wrongfully dismissed.
If you’re looking for an employment lawyer, ClearWay can help you find the right one for your situation and you can read reviews of thousands of Canadian legal professionals to save you the time of shopping around. While getting fired for what you post on social media might seem harsh and disproportionate, it’s quite possible that one mistake online could change your life and derail your career. But if you’ve been wrongfully punished for an ill-timed joke told online, staying silent is surely not the best or only option.