This topic comes up occasionally, but it’s still worth discussing. Being a cranky Gen-Xer who spent his formative experiences with the early Internet at Walt Disney World, I developed a healthy respect for and paranoia about the wide reach of social media–email, blogging, and all the rest.
I have friends and family members who absolutely refuse to use social media, and I have some who share way, way too much information for my tastes. Your level of comfort with social media might vary, as might your use of it; this post will cover the basics of your online “persona” and how that can affect the way you are perceived in the workplace.
It’s probably not a big shock to you, since you’re reading this blog anywhere from Central Florida to Hong Kong, but the content you post on the Internet can reach nearly anywhere in the world. This is a blessing and a curse, depending on how you wish to express yourself.
In a business context, you might find that you can easily separate what you do at or for work from what you do in your free time–accountant by day, Manga or Ska fan by night–and never the ‘twain shall meet. Or shall they?
Big Brother is Watching
The long, wide reach of the Internet is important for your professional prospects. How you conduct yourself and what you post can and will be judged by current and future employers, and you just never know when one or both might be seeking information about you online. So as you think about what you post online on a regular basis–Facebook, Twitter, your blog, Snapchat, whatever–consider how an employer, current or potential, might react if they say your “private life” posts vs. anything generated for work.
- Do you use a lot of profanity or bad grammar?
- Do you post pictures of yourself getting obnoxious/drunk out with your friends?
- Do you complain about or insult your boss, coworkers, or customers?
- Do you share company secrets (either inside gossip or actual intellectual property?
I can imagine some of my younger readers rolling their eyes at this point and thinking, “What does that matter? That’s my personal business!” Except that it’s not, especially if you’re divulging inside information about where you work. The Internet, for better or worse, has caused our personal and professional lives to overlap to a considerable degree. Conduct performed in a “personal” context can now be observed (if you’re foolish enough to post it) by your professional audience, and that audience can and will judge you for it. Companies and customers who see your name attached to them don’t want to be seen as hiring party-animal derelicts. If you’re public about representing yourself as employee of Company X, then there’s an unspoken assumption out there that you “represent” Company X. It’s no use complaining about your private life being intruded upon when you’re sharing it with the world.
Balancing Your Personal and Professional Identities
This is not to say you cannot express yourself. You have interests, opinions, ideas, and perhaps a sense of humor, and any or all of those can be incorporated into your online activities. Just be aware that others will be watching.
As it happens, my work puts me out in front of the public quite a bit, as I write articles about space exploration, organize events for the Science Cheerleaders, and maintain connections with personal and professional friends on Facebook and Twitter. My personal and professional accounts cannot help but overlap. As a result, I reduce the level of salty language from my posts or the various internet memes. While I have some very definite political opinions, I find that it’s better for the sake of amity among my friends and sanity in my own mind not to get into extended “flaming” wars about the various issues of the day. I try to maintain a “PG-13” rating on my posts. Not sure what that means? Check out the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) guidelines and resources for what sorts of things are and are not acceptable for broadcast TV or movies.
Politeness and good manners go a long way toward helping with your online postings as well, as do common-sense behaviors like not libeling someone. And if you’re ever in doubt about whether you should post something, you can always use the rubric of “Would I want my boss/customer to see this?” If the answer is no, don’t post it.