Admit it: You watched Marina Shifrin’s “I Quit” video with giddy delight. You mentally pumped your fist in solidarity, maybe even fantasized about your own choreographed kiss-off to your employer. Based on the 15-million-and-counting views Shifrin’s video has received, many people have dreamed about leaving a job and publicly slamming the door on the way out. Still, most of us know better than to burn bridges with such a foolhardy stunt. But even if you’re not making viral videos, the technology you use every day could be telegraphing your dissatisfaction to your employer and jeopardizing your current job—and your next one.
Loose lips sink careers
It’s natural to notice a coworker’s questionable attire or a VP’s tendency to arrive late to work. Kept to yourself or voiced through proper channels, it’s also harmless. But sharing bons mots about ugly shoes or poorly divided workloads through the tools you use every day—email, instant messaging, texting, social networks—can quickly undermine your job.
“I have seen a lot of employees misusing technology and limiting their careers,” says Aileen Kelly Schwab, director of human resources at UniversityParent, a website that provides on- and off-campus resources to parents of college students. “Their casual conversations used to stay in the break room. Now they’re on Facebook.”
When you’re communicating through tools that connect you with hundreds of people inside and outside the office, one errant mouse click can put your thoughts in front of a very unappreciative audience. Wrong chat window, wrong email recipient, email innocently forwarded beyond your target reader—you might as well queue up outside the HR office.
“We have the idea of chatting with people throughout the workday,” Schwab says “I’ve seen employees who have too many windows open and send disparaging comments about their boss to their boss.”
Communication gaffes aren’t the only way to end up on your employer’s radar, though. Much more common is the seemingly innocuous venting many of us do through our social media accounts. Pouring out your woes about your company’s bad coffee or stingy work-at-home policy makes you look like a malcontent. Complaining about shouldering too much of a project due to a coworker’s ineptitude? You’d better make sure that your Facebook friends don’t know someone in your workplace—and never will.
“It’s better to call your sister and tell her about your bad week at work than to post it on Facebook,” Schwab says. “People seem to treat a private phone call and a social media post as the same, but that’s not how employers see it.”
Fantastic employees may not have to clean out their desks because of one snide tweet (though you still may want to delete it). But for employees with less-than-glowing performance reviews, such slip-ups are likelier to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A sixteen-year HR veteran of several tech companies, Schwab has had to show tech-abusing employees the door on various occasions.
“If they’re not meeting work objectives and then there’s documentation through technology, that’s cause for termination,” Schwab says. “It’s the culminating event.”
You may think that if you’re going to leave the company anyway, your conduct doesn’t matter. But technology immortalizes every moment, including ones you wouldn’t want to revisit during a job interview. Managers may be leery of someone who resigns in a public forum such as YouTube, and no one wants to manage someone who criticized their previous boss in front of 1500 Facebook friends.
“A complainer is going to get burned,” says Lou Adler, founder and CEO of The Adler Group and bestselling author of The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired and other hiring books. If he learned that an employee had complained publicly about work, Adler says, “I would ask if the evidence is legitimate, and then ask if it shows a character flaw. I would not ignore it.”
Most employers still check references—and that’s where chat logs and email threads can come back to haunt you. Captured complaints at one job remain part of the record and can hurt even a “golden employee” who leaves voluntarily. Moving on to greener pastures is hard when you still have manure stuck to your shoe.
“Email and chat history are often turned over to the company as company property,” Schwab says. “Some of that information is useful for history or for project management. What we find is often disparaging comments, and it taints the legacy of that former employee….It makes managers less interested in providing good references.”
Off the clock doesn’t mean off the record
At this point, maybe you’re thinking that you’re smart enough not to publicly blow off steam about work, and that you clearly separate your personal life from your work one. But that “all opinions are my own, not my employer’s” notice on your Twitter profile won’t prevent your current or future employer from reading it. Your political views, your romantic life, your sports rants…if they’re online, they’re in the public record, and they’re a piece of the puzzle that potential employers—and possibly your current one—look at to assemble a complete picture of you. Any behavior that suggests a lack of judgment counts against you—even if it happens outside the parameters of “work.”
“Sometimes a recruiter will tell me, ‘I googled someone, and I found some photos, so we’re going to pass,’” says Julie Rogers, director of human resources at software company Atlassian.
An employer’s search goes beyond the first page of Google results. Adler says he would “absolutely look at Facebook and Twitter” to evaluate a candidate. And if negatives surface—even after a promising interview—busy recruiters will move on to the next candidate instead of inviting a contender to explain red flags. “They just don’t have time to deal with it,” he says.
Schwab doesn’t hunt down employees on social networks, aside from career networking site LinkedIn. But while she won’t be estimating the level of alcohol consumption in a series of Instagram party pics, another interviewer might. Their motivation isn’t a love of digging for dirt, but a desire to avoid having that dirt smeared on their company.
And though you know that you would never cuss out your boss the way you did that other-wing political nutjob online, your prospective employer doesn’t. If you can’t keep your private life private and your casual conversations civil, you raise doubts about what you’ll do with company secrets or how you’ll behave in meetings. That atmosphere of uneasiness doesn’t lead to job offers.
“Choices about what people post online demonstrate their ability to make sound decisions,” says Rogers. “If someone is making questionable choices about how they’re managing their personal life (and being very public about it online), how would they behave once hired, with resources and reputation that don’t belong to them?”
Hit ‘pause’ before you hit ‘send’
When you’re reeling from a bad day—or from an accumulation of so many bad days that you feel the need to change jobs—don’t let your tech tools document your less-than-interview-worthy grumbles. Your thoughts may be fleeting, but once they become data, they can dog your footsteps forever. Likewise, when you record your personal life online, think about how it would look at work. Keep your conduct professional, and you’ll keep your professional options open.
6 tips to keep your career safe with (or from) tech
2. Be aware of time-and-date stamps. Even if the content in question is innocuous and has nothing to do with work, a tweet or Facebook comment indicates exactly when you’re not working. Save your social networking for outside business hours.
3. Keep the commentary off company property. Your company owns more than office space. It owns the computer, the network, and perhaps the mobile devices you use, and it can call those back at any time. Chat logs are forever.
4. Never name names. If you feel the need to make an unflattering observation about your boss, don’t do it by name—even when posting anonymously on a look-inside-the-company site such as Glassdoor. A simple egosurf by your boss may turn up your remarks, and your distinctive writing style may lead right back to you.
5. Don’t post anything about work on a public forum—or even a semipublic forum. You can keep your social network privacy settings high, but you can’t control another person’s privacy settings. Cut-and-paste makes your zingers easy to share, and you never know how clueless your Facebook friends are until you catch them at it.
6. Don’t expect pseudonyms to stay secret. It’s tempting to keep an anonymous blog or Twitter feed that chronicles your misery. But even if you do it on your own time and equipment, any details you introduce—conversations, locations, situations, and the like—contribute to a mosaic that looks just like you. And if you let anyone else in on it, you lose control of the information you share.
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Laura Blackwell's title is PCWorld Downloads Editor, but she can't keep her hands off cloud software, either.
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