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Published July 24th 2012

Oversharing on Social Media: Will We Never Learn?

Despite the never ending articles and horror stories about privacy and how much we’re sharing on social media, some of us never learn. Last week, the power of social media – and the dangers of not being careful about what you post – was demonstrated to great effect.

An anonymous photo was uploaded last Monday on the dark corner of the internet that is image-sharing site 4chan. The photo was of a Burger King employee’s feet, standing on two boxes of lettuce, with the statement “This is the lettuce you eat at Burger King”.

Now, we’re sure that this employee probably thought that this was hilarious. He probably gave himself a big pat on the back for being such a rebel. What he probably didn’t expect was to be quickly located, ousted and fired.

You see, this employee might have thought he was anonymous when posting, but he didn’t bank on the fact that he had left Exif data attached to his image. Within 10 minutes of posting the picture, another user had noted that the photo’s Exif data pointed to Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

A few minutes later, someone else posted the address of the specific Burger King branch. Someone then sent the link and photo to Burger King directly via their contact form. You can see the thread unfold here (warning – bad language!)

The rest is, as they say, history, ending with the swift firing of the employee in question (and two others, if reports are to be believed).

Cases such as this keep appearing online, and yet it seems no one takes heed and learns from the mistakes of others. A glance at ‘social networking privacy experiment’ weknowhwatyouredoing.com demonstrates the huge number of people who happily and publicly express their love for drugs, their hungover state or their hatred for their boss every day.

Even those who should know better don’t – in May this year Gene Morphis, the CFO of US women’s boutique chain Francesca,  was fired due to ‘improperly communicated company information through social media’.

This was due to a number of tweets and Facebook posts in which Morphis boasted about his successes at work, such as this tweet: “Board meeting. Good numbers=Happy Board”, six days before the company announced its quarterly earnings.

Social media means that your conduct out of work hours can now impact your job, and it’s a trap many are falling into without realising. Take those rioters who posted pictures of themselves online looting in Vancouver last June – they found out the dangers of oversharing the hard way, as they were handed not only prison sentences but also, in some cases, their severance package.

And we all know that employers are increasingly using social media to weed out potential employees when hiring. According to a survey earlier this year by CareerBuilder, 37% of employers check out their prospective employees’ social media use before making a decision.

A third of managers said that this research had led to a prospect not being offered the job, with the reasons given ranging from inappropriate photos, to drinking or drug use, and even to bad-mouthing a previous employer or lying about qualifications.

Social media can work in your favour though, providing you are careful about what you are sharing. The survey also found that social media can provide support for the claims you make on your CV and give employers a feel for your personality.

But what can your employer punish you for when it comes to social media? Obviously, misconduct like standing on lettuce that is to be eaten by customers will result in disciplinary action, but what if you just moan to a colleague about your boss via Facebook?

It seems this is a murky area. Some companies are tackling the social media problem head on by having company policies on social media use both outside of work and in; a survey by PayScale suggests that half of companies surveyed have a such formal policies. However, these policies  are not only extremely difficult to define, but also could possibly be  illegal – the legality of limiting what employees can and can’t do online is still questionable.

For now, it’s probably best to stay on the safe side and consider what you are writing carefully. If you wouldn’t want your boss or your nan to see it, it’s probably best to keep it to yourself.

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