In 2010, Ashley Johnson, a waitress from North Carolina, took to ranting about a couple who sat at her table and only tipped her $5. She complained about a couple who spent too much time at her table and didn’t tip enough. She called the couple “cheap” and mentioned the restaurant by name. She was fired. In 2018, a firefighter from Ohio was fired after only a couple of weeks on the job after a “racist” post that was not disclosed.
Every once in a while, this type of news about someone who was fired for something they posted on social media seems to pop up. Whether it’s something they posted about someone else, themselves, or some other type of post that made someone mad, getting fired seems to have become a real possibility.
But how often does this really happen? A group of researchers wanted to investigate.
“For more than a decade now, stories of people being fired for posts on social media—posts that they themselves have made, or posts by others that resulted in a firing—have circulated widely,” write Brady Robards and Darren Graf, the authors of the study.
When Facebook can cost you your job
Social media is playing an increasingly important role in our lives — not just in our personal lives, but also in the workplace. Employers and HR departments routinely use social media background checks to vet potential candidates, which is raising some major red flags for our privacy, the researchers note.
“Social media posts and profiles have become a key part of hiring and firing processes, producing a “hidden curriculum of surveillance.” When hiring, employers routinely engage in “cybervetting” job candidates, making judgments based on their social media presence (or absence), and so too can social media disclosures impact (positively and negatively) employment progression and even result in termination. Where is the line between personal social media use and professional identities?” the team asks.
In addition to social media playing a role in the hiring process, it can also prompt companies to let some employees go if the content they post on social media hurts their reputation. We’re no longer in the old days when you had to use the office phone service to connect to the world, you can just turn on your smartphone and can broadcast to the entire world in 4K — but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
The new study surveyed 312 news stories about people who had been fired because of a social media post. It didn’t just include people who were fired because of the content of their own social media posts, but also people who were fired based on others’ posts like for instance, videos of police engaging in racial profiling, which ultimately led to the policemen being fired.
The most common reason why people were getting fired is racism — 28% of stories related to racism specifically. Another 17% related to workplace conflict, and 16% were “insensitive posts”. Another 8% were acts of violence and abuse, 7% were queerphobia and misogyny, and 5% were “political content”.
This study suggests that social media is a double-edged sword: on one hand, social media (and to a greater extent, public discourse) can be held to call out structural problems and individual “bad actors” — as the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have exemplified. You’re free to say what you want on social media, but it can be used against you, either on the network itself or in real life.
But does this mean that everything you put on social media, which is supposed to be your private life, is now fair game for employers?
A blurring line
As employers continue to employ more and more invasive techniques, the line between personal and professional life gets more and more blurry, and the consequences of this trend can be far-reaching. There are relatively few instances of people getting fired from their social media posts, but the insidious effects (like people not being hired based on what they post on social media) may be less visible.
Furthermore, the researchers also found that some people were fired because they were LGBTQ+ (and posted about it) or posted a photo of themselves in a bikini, which is even more concerning.
Ultimately, our professional and personal lives are intertwining more and more, and as the world continues to become more interconnected, the trend will only become more pronounced. We still don’t have a firm boundary for what is and isn’t fair game on social media and how that can or can’t be used in professional life. Right now, we’re pretty much living in the Wild West of social media — for better or for worse.
Alexandra is a naturalist who is firmly in love with our planet and the environment. When she's not writing about climate or animal rights, you can usually find her doing field research or reading the latest nutritional studies.