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Social Media Can Wreck Your Career

It can also cripple your company if employees abuse it

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Comedian Gilbert Gottfried is the latest celebrity to be fired over social media, because of callous tweets about the devastating tsunami in Japan.

In February, Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives after stories emerged that he sent a bare-chested photo of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist. And, how can we forget those ex-Domino's Pizza employees who posted videos on YouTube showing themselves doing disgusting things to a pizza two years ago? That's the problem – you can't forget it – because once you post something online and it goes viral, it's there forever for the world to see.

Social media is a popular way to network, market yourself or promote your business, but it can also kill job offers, lose clients, tarnish reputations or, worse, get you fired. These days, most companies need a social-media policy to safeguard information, protect the brand and preserve productivity.

"It's not enough anymore to say, 'Use your common sense,' " says Roxanne Darling, a partner at Barefoot Studios, which provides social media training, consultation and Web-development services. "It's better to be clear so employees don't have to guess what's permitted and management doesn't have to make up the rules along the way."

Risky Business

Employees at work visit Facebook more than any other Internet site, according to a recent study by Network Box, a global company that manages security services. It surveyed 13 billion URLs used by businesses in the first quarter of 2010 and found that 6.8 percent of all business Internet traffic goes to Facebook – double Google's business traffic.

Social media connects us 24/7 and, for some people, it's impossible to resist knowing what's going on with their online community at all times. That hurts productivity and job performance.

"There are all kinds of studies that show the average person puts in an eight-hour day (of work), but if you get four useful hours out of them, you're doing pretty well," Darling says. "Most likely, social media has put a big dent in that number."

Employees who access Facebook, Twitter or other social media can waste hours every day, costing their companies hundreds to thousands of dollars daily, according to Nucleus Research Inc., which provides information-technology research and advising. Nucleus interviewed 237 randomly selected office workers in 2009 and found that almost half use social media during work, and only 13 percent of them could identify a clear business purpose for doing so.


There are more than 500 million active Facebook users globally and, collectively, they spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on the site, says Nucleus Research. Slowly, Facebook messages are beginning to replace traditional emails, even for business.

"That's a lot of information being disseminated via social media sites," Darling says. "And from a business's perspective, that opens up a lot of opportunity for security breaches, confidentiality issues and misinformation."

"Social Media and the Workplace: A Guide for Hawaii Employers," a white paper released last year by Altres Staffing, says, "Employees who post negative comments online about fellow workers or management, or make disparaging comments about customers or vendors, can expose a company to legal liability and/or a public-relations crisis." (Go to to download the full report for free.)

In 2001, Ian Lind became the first journalist in the nation to be fired over social media when he blogged about topics related to the sale of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Legally, Hawaii is an at-will employment state, which means employers in the private sector can reprimand or fire employees for any – or no – reason, including violating a company's social-media policy, according to Altres.

     Click to enlarge image.

Fired before you're hired

It's becoming more common for employers and HR professionals to conduct online background checks on potential hires before making a job offer. A quick Google search or scan of a candidate's Facebook or LinkedIn pages can reveal a lot about a person, says Kristi Inkinen Yanagihara, principal of Remedy Intelligent Staffing, which offers entry- to management-level job placement services.

"We don't use it for background checks but we do use it as a character reference," Inkinen Yanagihara says. "For example, if there are questionable gaps of employment or something on the candidate's resume that seems inconsistent, most times we'll use social media to check it out."

Inkinen Yanagihara says what people do on their personal time can affect their work performance. "If there are lots of pictures of you partying every night, that might affect your attendance or ability to focus on your job." She says a lot of her employer-clients do their due diligence and google job prospects as well, "so we need to make sure we do our research and don't get caught off guard by any inappropriate information that the client could've dragged up. But you have to take some of the information with a grain of salt. After all, we were all 21 once."

Remedy Staffing has dismissed applicants because of questionable online content. Employers will usually be more forgiving of entry-level applicants versus management candidates, and will also consider the nature of the job.

Judy Bishop, the owner of Bishop & Co., a professional recruiting firm that also provides HR consulting and outsourcing, says her staff does not use social media to research clients for several reasons: "You cannot discriminate on the basis of age, race, gender and religion," she says. "If you go to someone's Facebook page, there's a chance that you can see all of that information. Second, it could be a case of mistaken identity and, third, a candidate can misrepresent themselves on social media just as they would on a resume, so you have to verify everything."

Inkinen Yanagihara says her firm will only reference a person's social media sites after they've met for a face-to-face interview and are being considered for a position.

Two other notable staffing and recruitment firms in Honolulu – Olsten Staffing Services and Inkinen and Associates (owned by Kathryn Inkinen, the mother of Kristi Inkinen Yanagihara) – also do not use social media to check out job candidates. However, many local employers who handle their own hiring do.

"In Hawaii, employment laws constrain our ability to conduct full background checks prior to a job offer," says Malcolm Inamine, director of HR and administration for Aloha Pacific Federal Credit Union. "Therefore, our credit union relies heavily on the reputation and character references readily available on a candidate."

After an application is submitted and an interview conducted, the company uses social media such as Facebook, Myspace, blogs and others sites for additional information.

"As a financial institution, because credibility and reputation are so important, the standards must also be high for the people that the credit union employs," Inamine says, adding that APFCU has withheld job offers to candidates whose online profiles were deemed inappropriate or unprofessional.

Individuals who think they can keep their personal and professional online personas separate are sorely mistaken, says Inkinen Yanagihara. "You're representing the company even when you're not at work, so anything you do could end up online and could reflect poorly on your employer and result in disciplinary action," she says.

For example, if a sales executive for a well-known wine distributor updates his Facebook status with: "Just finished a BIG client presentation at the Hilton – cha-ching!" it might alert competitors to a potential sales opportunity.

In 2008, former Gov. Linda Lingle selected Joshua Wingstrom, a UH-Manoa graduate student, to fill a vacancy on the UH Board of Regents. Wingstrom resigned when several UH students showed up at the public confirmation hearing to present negative testimony, including embarrassing photos from Wingstrom's Myspace page that were distributed to all the senators and audience members.

Kitty Lagareta, who was chair of the regents at the time, recalls Wingstrom was partially nude in one of the photos, making rude hand gestures and drinking from a large wine bottle. "The senators called a break in his confirmation hearing and then reconvened to announce that he had decided to withdraw his application to the BOR," Lagareta says. Other reports say there were images of Wingstrom with a female dressed in a fig-leaf bikini and quotes about him favoring "naked parties" and "beer pong."

Lagareta, who is the chairman and CEO of her own company, Communications Pacific, says it's none of her business what her 30 employees do on their free time – except if their behavior reflects badly on the company's image, credibility or ability to service clients.

Inamine says blogs by potential hires that are critical of former employers would also diminish their chances for employment.

Even attorneys are using social media for gathering information on parties and witnesses, says Louise Ing, a director and stockholder at the Honolulu law firm Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing.

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

May 12, 2011 12:38 pm
 Posted by  hdoug

It’s ironic that management has to be so wary of employees using social media at a time when more and more organizations are participating so deeply in it themselves. I just returned from a tweetup conducted by NASA for the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. There is no way a company can make a coherent social media policy for its employees without being familiar with its use. Those who know -- like NASA -- can reap the rewards and avoid the risks.

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