Employees Posting About Work on Social Media – Is It an Issue?

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First coined in 1997, the concept of social media is almost as old as the internet itself. Born out of a societal need to act as a cohesive unit, sharing ideas and thoughts through basic communication, social media helped shrink the world into a bite-sized capsule. Now, with juggernaut strength and a link to around 4.9 billion users worldwide, social media platforms have become a mainstay of communication, whether informative or entertainment.

Your mother is on social media. Your mother’s mother has a TikTok account. So on and so forth. A world once shrouded in the mystery of miscommunication and distance has now shrunk to the size of a phone screen. You can connect with anyone anywhere anytime. A modern marvel that makes even the Great Pyramid of Giza wonder.

Waxing poetic about the internet aside, there’s a dilemma to be had. If social media is to act as both an outlet for individual emotion and a place for business brand creation, what happens when the two collide? What happens when an employee begins posting too much information about a business?

Are employee posts about social media an issue in 2023? If so, what can be done about it?

My ‘Ick’ Is You

We will begin this process with two separate stories, both involving nurses and the need for posts. What you’ll find is not necessarily a deep dive into the psychology behind a like-based culture, but the necessity for workplace anonymity.

Toward the end of 2022, a trend of naming ‘icks’ flew throughout the TikTok platform. The trend, which seemed to be another that would quickly pass by, included stating things that made you upset. Things that grossed you out.

Unfortunately for 4 nurses, the trend wasn’t just a wavering moment. After making an extremely distasteful TikTok stating their dislikes about normal patient activities, the workers were both dragged through the mud and fired.

The employer, Emory Healthcare, went on to make a social media post about the video and separation stating, “The video does not represent our commitment to patient-and-family-centered care and falls short of the values and standards we expect every member of our team to hold and demonstrate.”

More Jest, More Firing

Not even a month later, two more nurses were fired for unnecessary and socially foul TikTok posts.

Two nurses at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee were fired for making a video that poked fun at patients. In the video, one nurse claims that her ‘ick’ is “When a kid comes in with a gunshot wound but then cries because we gotta stick` em for labs.”

In the background, another nurse laughs aloud.

The hospital went on to make a Facebook post stating, “The sentiments expressed in this video are unacceptable and not our culture of patient-and family-centered care. We immediately took steps to address the situation to the full extent of our policy. The individuals are no longer working here.”

Twitter War

There’s an underlying irony here. Both companies had to use social media in an attempt to counteract other posts by employees. They had to use the same platform to make sure potential visitors knew they don’t stand for the standards and practices demonstrated in the videos. It almost acts as a Twitter-based battle between employee and employer.

Though this cheeky observation doesn’t truly define whether employee posts are a significant issue, it does push the overall importance of the platforms for companies (like yours).

Social media is so powerful that the only way to combat the PR nightmare of visibly bad employees is to counteract on said platform. It’s as if it’s the only thing that matters, making other outlets of information publications useless.

Sure, the company could have easily released a PR memo to local news stations and papers in the area, but that wouldn’t be enough. We aren’t speaking about a local issue, but one that’s worldwide. Both TikToks in question had millions of views. Millions of views stretched beyond Tenessee.

It’s a point to be noted. Social media is crucial for business success in the modern age. According to Sprout Social, 78% of consumers are willing to buy from a company after having a positive experience with them on social.

Remember this information for later.

But Why Are They Doing This? — A Message Against You

“Using social media can lead to physical and psychological addiction because it triggers the brain’s reward system to release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. Dopamine is actually a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger between neurons) involved in neurological and physiological functioning.”

— Lee Health ‘Are You Addicted to Social Media?

As stated, we are not here to dive into the need and addiction based on social media or the dopamine boost likes give you. We are not here to combat the cult of personality or why people want to become famous by any means necessary (including losing their careers). These studies have already been done and cliched for decades.

Our main question is somewhere between the aforementioned dopamine studies and the need for emotional outlets. Why do employees think it’s okay to speak about their employer online? What did they believe would happen? Was it worth it?

There is a fine line, if not drawn in the sand, then drawn on Snapchat, about not posting about your employer. Both employees and businesses know that it exists. We, as individuals raised in a capitalist culture, know the importance of the worker-workplace relationship. We know that openly badmouthing our place of employment is a quick way to lose a job, something we hold so dear and important.

If the concept is such a well-known and unwritten law, then why does it keep happening?

Sherress Hicks, founder and CEO of Georgia Maternal Fetal Health Alliance and clinical health educator, told Axios that she believes the issue is workplace dissatisfaction. She said, “If the nurses’ level of frustration is that bad that they have to do a TikTok video, [then] something has to be changed within labor and delivery. What is going to be done in the future proactively to avoid these types of frustrations and concerns that the nurses do have?”

It’s hard to blame workplace dissatisfaction as the reason for such unprofessional behavior.

Though it’s understandable to blindly choose the side of the average employee, the sector of the American economy that often seems the most overlooked and muted, it’s hard to take Hicks’ aforementioned theory as a valid excuse.

We understand that being unhappy at work can lead to a plethora of challenges and emotional outlets, but publicly shaming not only your company but the innocent clientele, is unheard of. If not for the increasing commonality of oversharing for online attention, the thought process would never be set in commonplace. We never saw newspaper articles bashing companies and customers before the shrinking, leaking world of the internet.

There’s empathy in disliking your job or the modern structure of work. A study by Inc and Go found that about 95% of people felt external pressure to overwork. The three primary sources of pressure were work superiors (65%), friends and family (46%), and culture and media (43%).

Being overworked and apathetic is common and respectable, but doing so in a way that hurts others is unnecessary (to say the least). Pinning the above actions on ‘workplace dissatisfaction’ seems like a copout for blatantly bad behavior.

Regardless, this is an extreme example.

Prior to this incident, events like this were not seen as commonplace. Yes, it’s very often that an employee spreads information about their work on social media, but to the heights of the nurse TikToks were a rarity. As of now, it’s too soon to call this a forthcoming trend. It could be possible that the ‘ick’ situation just created a perfect storm for bad workers to share their distaste, hurting customers and companies in the process.

What we do know (for sure) is that employee social media posts will never truly end. With the installation of social media as a culture, the act of lowering oversharing is nearly impossible. And when an employee spends the majority of their waking time at work, oversharing is likely to involve things that take place at said work.

So, the question remains. Is employee social media usage an issue?

Three Different Types of Posts

It’s nearly impossible to break the entirety of expression into 3 categories, but when speaking about social media posts regarding employers, the concept usually falls into 3 broad purposes.

If we were to say “all social media posts about employers are bad”, one would point out that specifics are important. Because specifying is nearly impossible, we feel breaking it into broad categories can help the investigation and thought process further.

Therefore, our 3 categories for social media posts are as follows:

1. The Complaint

Ultimately, this is the employer-based post you are most likely to see. On the unfortunate side, it is also the one that leads to the most negativity, brand backlash, and firings.

Career Builder found that 18% of employers have fired people because of something they posted on social media, and at least 70% of employers screen candidates’ profiles before hiring. When speaking of these firings, the complaint post is most likely to blame.

Simply put, the complaint post is the same as the two stories above. The employee uses the platform to make negative statements about their job, employer, supervisors, coworkers, or customers. Depending on the size and target, negative effects may vary. If, for example, the company only has one storefront location, the impact of the negativity is much higher than, say, a worldwide organization.

One may complain about their one business location, but if there are thousands in the world, most viewers will write it off as a bad apple. If they complain about the singular location, more people are likely to take the information negatively.

This is not to be confused with negative posts of obvious employees. An employee posting something personal and negative and getting reprimanded for representing the company badly is a different subject entirely. This is a complaint specifically about the employer.

2. The Common Day

The common day post may not be shrouded in as much negativity as the complaint, but it can lead to a variety of issues and employer backlash.

Overall, the common day post is not a complaint. The employee posts on social media about work or during work with harmless intentions. For example, if an employee makes a TikTok speaking about day-to-day events at work or an entirely different subject with the workplace in the background, this is a common day post.

This may be as simple as sharing a ‘harmlessly’ funny story about a customer or event. Oftentimes we see these and think nothing of them. They are based on harmless intentions, after all.

The issue here becomes that of privacy. Though the post may not outright hurt your company or brand (and sometimes can boost it), it may share information that is unnoticed. A harmless story may give away customer information. A selfie may display company information that was not intended to be shared. So on and so forth.

These posts are a little grayer. Oversharing is possible, but may not be negative enough to cause termination.

3. The Advertisement

If the complaint was outright negative and the common day was in the middle, the advertisement post swings to the positive side of the social media spectrum.

Basically, the employee goes out of their way to share good information or an overall endorsement of their company or fellow employees. It works to boost the company’s brand through unasked promotion.

If done organically, it may work to boost a company’s reputation by a significant margin over normal advertisements or customer reviews. It shows people that the employees are actually happy and are willing to go out of their way to compliment their employer, regardless of being asked. It’s the highest point of actual endorsement.

If the nurse ‘icks’ were based on workplace dissatisfaction, advertisement posts are based on the opposite. They should be relished by small companies (especially).

Platforms like Indeed also has a section where employees can review employers. This isn’t necessarily the same concept, but it’s similar in outcome. We would not consider employee reviews a social media post, though.

Do Any of These Actually Affect Business?

The question truly becomes the cause-and-effect system. Do the posts, both negative and positive, have any tangible effect on business success and branding?

Overall, it’s hard to say, but banking on statistics circling tightly around the topic, it’s easy to theorize that posts have a significant impact. In a way, you must think of the post as a review of sorts. Ultimately, the employee is reviewing the company from the inside out. And if the post works in the same field of impact as a review, things don’t look great. A study by ReviewTrackers found that 94% of consumers say a bad review has convinced them to avoid a business.

Furthermore, a Twitter study found that 56% of shoppers consider social brand conversation more (or as) impactful than traditional reviews. And, in a way, an employee posting about the company is just as much of a brand conversation as employer posts.

Unfortunately, there aren’t as many studies regarding negative social media posts and their impact on business, but if the aforementioned statistics are considered, it would probably lean in the same direction. If a potential customer were to see negative things about a company from the worker, insults about customers, or negativity around the company brand, they are likely to avoid the company.

And We Believe It!

While we aren’t here to discuss the idea of ‘fake news’, it’s important to note the exponential impact of people believing everything they read on the internet. The study of surveys involving 8,200 people, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that as many as three in four Americans overestimate their ability to spot false headlines – and the worse they are at it, the more likely they are to share fake news.

If people are likely to believe false information, then we can conclude that they are likely to take one personal story as truth. Therefore, if an employee shares a complaint about a company that is subjective, a rare situation, or untrue, the company has no chance of clearing the falsities of the one-sided information.

This theory in conjunction with the importance of reviews creates a nasty amalgamation of misunderstanding. Therefore, we can hypothesize that negative social media posts are dramatically important to the customer outlook of a company.

If we are to state that the impact of social media posts is an issue with employers, the next question becomes that of protection. Can employees legally share posts like employer complaints and client information? Can you (and should you) fight back?

Overall, posting about your employer and personal job information is not illegal.

Todd Wulffson, managing partner in the Orange County office of Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP, told GlassDoor,

“As a general rule, an employee has the right to post information about his or her wages, hours and working conditions online – and those are very broad categories. So, general complaints or grievances are protected under federal law (the National Labor Relations Act) and various state laws that protect employees from retaliation for complaining about working conditions.  What is not protected are threats of violence, racial epithets or other hate speech, harassment, or disclosure of trade secrets or confidential information.  The employer may have an obligation to investigate and ensure that other employees and/or its confidential information are protected.

Of lesser importance, but an area where employers are likely to take action, is when employees post false or misleading information on social media sites that they know to be false or are designed to harm the company’s reputation or that of its management employees.”

So, the average negative post of post about daily work life isn’t grounds for legal action. The only place where legality may come into play is if the post is ludicrous lies or slander made to harm the company. This would be an extreme case and, for larger companies, is not a lawsuit seen often.

For smaller companies, it may not be worth the money and time to try and combat an employee lying about the company. It all depends.

Positivity Can Be Illegal, Though

Funny enough, posting compliments and advertisements about an employer is where most legal issues come into play.

Wulffson went on to say,

“Finally, an area where employees find themselves in legal hot water is when they post positive information about their employer – but fail to disclose that they are employees.  The Federal Trade Commission has specific regulations about employees disclosing their affiliation with a business if they post positive information online.  Many businesses have been blind-sided with unfair competition lawsuits by competitors because employees were unknowingly trying to “help” the company’s marketing by posting positive information on social media sites, but not disclosing that they are employees.”

Though those positive social media posts may be elating for you, the employer, they may be the ones to truly get you and the employee in legal trouble. You must be careful there.

Posts About Clients, But Not the Business

An employee posting about clients is where things truly get wonky. The anecdote about the nurse TikToks involved openly bashing clients and customers. There’s a reason they got a significant amount of attention over simple posts complaining about employers. Insulting and speaking negatively about customers and clients is more likely to raise the eyebrows of potential customers.

Why would you want to give your business to a company that could potentially insult you?

Furthermore, posting any private information about clients is highly illegal. Posting information, photos, or videos with open consent is illegal for both the poster and the place of business. This is not a murky gray area like the waters above, this is outright bad.

Therefore, posts about clients and customers should be considered significantly worse for the overall outlook of a company. Not only will they quickly dwindle a client base, but they may lead to legal issues. A post about a customer should be seen as the worst of all the post types.

Should a Company Policy Be Put Into Place?

Overall, you can legally place a company policy regarding employee social media usage. While it may seem like a strange push onto the freedom of speech rights, it’s applicable because it protects you, the brand, as a place of information and business. Simply put, you are legally allowed to say that an employed person cannot speak about your company on social media for privacy reasons.

Ultimately, we are not here to persuade you one way or the other. If you believe that negative social media posts could be a detriment to your future business or don’t want to spend time dealing with them if they were to arise, then a policy should be put into place. Furthermore, if you deal closely with customer information (like healthcare), then a policy should certainly be put in place to protect your company legally.

Though the advertisement is seen as positive, you can’t hold a double standard on posting. If you are going to ban any posting related to your company, you have to post positive ones, too. If you are to work to squash the freedom of speech toward your business, you have to take the bad and the good. You simply cannot have it both ways. And, as we said, positive posts are the most likely to end in legal issues.

At the end of the day, placing a policy regarding employees being unable to post private information, company opinions, and other business secrets is an understandable and common occurrence.

Is It a Fireable Offense?

Can you legally fire an employee for posting about your company on social media? If the policy is already in place and they are breaking it, yes. If the policy is not in place, things get tricky.

California, Colorado, Louisiana, New York, and North Dakota ban employers from firing or retaliating against employees for any off-duty lawful activity, including speech. In these states, it’s hard to fire for posts. At the same time, if a state is at-will, the employer is allowed to terminate the employee without represented reason. Therefore, posting offensive things on social media would not be legal grounds for firing, but posting about the company could be.

On the other hand, posting any private information about customers, fellow employees, and other trade secrets is illegal, making it an obviously fireable offense. Anything blatantly discriminatory to a protected class (race, age, sex, etc.) also counts.

The National Labor Relations Act and other similar state laws protect employees’ rights to communicate with one another about their employment. Under these laws, employees who are fired for posting online complaints about their wages, benefits, tip-sharing arrangements, management, hours, or other work conditions could have a strong legal claim under the NLRA. 

In most cases, yes, a negative social media post about a company is a fireable offense. There are plenty of obscured and fine lines, though. So, if you are unsure of the legality behind the situation, it’s best to reach out to a local lawyer.

The Hiring Process – Are Posts Red Flags?

Our final point is going to bring everything back to staffing. As a recruitment agency, it’s what we know best.

Should you consider looking at social media posts during the hiring process? Absolutely.

As we stated, Career Builder found that nearly 70% of employers screen candidates’ profiles before hiring. There are multiple reasons to do so. Not only can you learn a bit more about the candidate’s personality before hiring them, but you can learn about any red flags. If they are prone to doing offensive things or questionable activities on social media, you may not want to waste your time hiring them.

This isn’t to say that all candidates with questionable social media posts should be dropped from candidacy, but it should raise flags. Anything offensive or illegal should be an immediate no.

If the candidate has had a past issue complaining about a company, customer, or fellow employee, beware. For some companies, this would be a quick toss in the trash. Some employers may give a candidate a chance to explain themselves and share their growth.

Overall, if they have already dragged an employer through the mud, who’s to say they won’t do it again? It’s certainly a place of concern. And, as we’ve found here, negative posts about an employer can have a colossal impact on business, brand, and (sometimes) legality.