August 20, 2013 3:33 pm
Updated: August 20, 2013 9:44 pm

Tweeter beware: How our online lives put our professional lives at risk

Be careful what you tweet.

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TORONTO – A Twitter user takes to their timeline to tweet something nasty about the company they work for; after said tweet gains traction the user is fired from their job; the Internet reacts.

At the height of the social media takeover – in which our private lives are played out very publically through various online portals – these types of stories continue to be passed along, like old wives tales for the Internet-obsessed working generation.

But stories like these are far from fiction.

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Each week there seems to be a new example of employers firing people as a consequence for the dirty laundry they chose to air out online.

Just this week, a daycare worker in Virginia was fired after posting pictures of some of the daycare children on Instagram, allegedly making fun of their appearances and speech difficulties.

And last week a Toronto-area resident, whose public request for a drug dealer to deliver some weed to his workplace went viral after York Regional Police retweeted the request, was fired from his job.

The Twitter pot plea story seemed to reignite the debate about employees being fired for what they say via social media, some arguing that the user didn’t physically commit a crime and, therefore, didn’t deserve to lose his job.

But, according to three employment law experts Global News spoke to, the user’s termination was not uncommon.

According to Christine Thomlinson, Partner at Rubin Thomlinson an employment law firm in Toronto, there are two common justifications for dismissal in cases like this – termination with, or without, cause.

“He could have been dismissed without cause, which really any employer has the ability to do provided they give the employee a severance package – absent any human rights issues,” explained Thomlinson.

“A cause termination, on the other hand, is a pretty high bar for an employer to meet to justify – because the person would not get a severance package.”

It is unclear in this case how the Twitter user was dismissed. Global News contacted Mr. Lube to get clarification on the Twitter user’s firing, however the company did not respond to request for comment.

But Thomlinson said these incidents are becoming increasingly common.

“Yes, there is free speech, but that should not be confused with workplace consequences. In other words, you can say what you want but it doesn’t mean that your employer can discipline you as a consequence of it,” cautioned Daniel Lublin, Toronto Employment Lawyer with the law firm Whitten & Lublin.

“If you express your views on Facebook, Twitter, or any other form of social media, and it conflicts with your employers interests, they may be able to fire you without pay.”

Both Thomlinson and Lublin agreed that firing an employee with cause is a very high standard for employers because it can be hard to prove that an employee’s actions were so terrible that they didn’t deserve compensation – but both noted that it can still happen.

Read your employment contract carefully

It’s become common practice for employers to include social media clauses in employment contracts in order to outline the company’s expectations about employees’ social media use.

These clauses outline policies surrounding social media for both personal and professional use, including the disclosure of confidential company information, right down to suggesting employees add statements like, “Views or opinions do not reflect those of my employer,” to their social networking profiles.

Some social media clauses warn employees about publically identifying themselves as an employee of the company online – others forebode it altogether.

Thomlinson said it is incredibly important for employees to carefully read their employment contracts to be clear on their employer’s expectations when it comes to social media.

The employment law expert said these clauses are becoming increasingly popular in the workforce.

“Increasingly there are clear polices outlining social media and electronic communications about the extent to which, or how, an employee can reference their employer on social media,” said Thomlinson.

Even a positive message tweeted about the employer may not be appreciated, depending on the company, she noted.

What you tweet today may hinder your professional development a year from now

The rise of social media has also drastically changed the way companies vet job candidates.

No longer will a well-written resume and a firm handshake seal your reputation with a prospective employer – many companies will at least execute a Google search on your name before hiring.

“The best advice I can give to those with online lives is to recognize that everyone is looking; every prospective employer these days is doing some sort of search on you to get a better sense of how you might represent their company, or brand,” said Joshua Karam, HR expert and Founding Director of Synchronize HR.

“You should recognize that what you put out there contributes to your personal brand.”

But Karam noted that this practice of vetting candidates on social media can be dangerous for employers because they may uncover information that really shouldn’t be factored into a hiring decision – personal information that wouldn’t come up in a job interview, for example.

Karam used the example of a personal friend whose young daughter suffers for leukemia, a personal matter that she is open about in her online life.

“Are you going to hire someone who is going to be off work because their child needs medical attention, and your benefit costs for your company are going to skyrocket? Maybe not,” said Karam.

“You now put your company at risk of discrimination simply by the power of Google.”

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