Can I (and Should I) Fire An Employee for Social Media Content?

google job candidatesThere is a phenomenon that doesn’t get talked about much publicly, but it’s something that in-the-trenches HR folks deal with fairly regularly. While we want to “rise up” and think about big picture, have a strategic viewpoint, and assume the best, there are always going to be friction points that hold us back. It’s a part of the whole “working with people” thing. :-) Today I want to talk through a few recent questions I have received around the impact of social media in the workplace.

We recently hired someone, but after he started I found out that he is posting offensive content to his Instagram page. Should we fire him? This is his first real job after college.

In some cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to terminate someone for what they are sharing online, especially if it would be harmful for your company if it were to come into the public eye. In this case, I’d take a coaching approach initially. The guy’s in his first job and might not realize the implications of what he is sharing. Take him aside, explain why he should NOT be sharing offensive things on a public social media site, and ask him to make it private and/or stop.

One way I’ve had success with this in the past is by framing it in terms of how someone they respect would see it. For instance, “I know that Joe thinks a lot of you, and that’s why he pushed to bring you on board. What would he say if he found out about this?” That’s often times motivation enough. We forget that maturity is delayed in kids these days for numerous reasons, and the first step should be to educate, not criticize. Don’t assume they know that the behavior is offensive.

We absolutely do not look at anyone’s social media profiles before we hire. That’s discriminatory, right?

Not necessarily. Often times I would not have time to research people online simply due to the time factor. With a full slate of work I didn’t have time to look up every single person (the recruiting process was already long enough). But there was one key time that it really saved us from embarrassment and lost revenue. We were pursuing work with a branch of the military known for its close, community-style relationship. Everyone knows everyone, right?

We had a backup candidate we were going to submit for the effort, and I went out to Google to find him on LinkedIn (because I heart LinkedIn for recruiting, by the way). His LinkedIn profile was the second item in the Google search results. The first? An article about his arrest for indecent exposure and subsequent legal actions. Due to the specific community we were dealing with, having that candidate in our proposal would have made us look clueless and would probably have cost us a sizable chunk of money if we lost it completely.

I don’t always Google my candidates, but I have a good reason to.

Now, would I forego hiring someone because they have pictures of them having a good time on the weekend shared on their Facebook page? That’s going to depend on the company culture, the person’s overall value as determined by the hiring process, and the exact nature of what I find in a search. It’s certainly not a blanket “no,” but it also isn’t a blank check for “anything goes,” either.

There’s a little thing called negligent hiring that I would bring up here to the naysayers. The basic premise is that if you have information that the candidate did something wrong in the past and could reasonably be expected to to it again to the detriment of those around them, then you have a responsibility to the rest of your staff to NOT hire the person. If we find out something about a candidate that would bring financial or other harm to employees, company, or customers, it’s our responsibility to keep that kind of people from getting onto the payroll.

Whether you want to warn them ahead of time or not is entirely your call. As long as you have some measure of transparency in the recruiting process, the candidate shouldn’t expect anything public to be off-limits.

What other questions do you have about social media and how it has added complexity to everyday HR activities? I’d love to offer some advice!

2 thoughts on “Can I (and Should I) Fire An Employee for Social Media Content?

  1. Tim Hartman


    I’m surprised that in your response today you did not refer to many recent decisions of the National Labor Relations Board regarding employees in NON-UNION (and Union) environments having a wide latitude to be critical of their employer and their management because those actions can be protected under the National Labor Relations Act. I suggest you do some research on these matters and potentially modify your advice. You should also be aware that the NLRB has struck down a number of employer personnel policies regarding confidentiality and what constitutes good conduct in the workplace and outside of it because they’ve ruled the policies are too broad and limit employees’ NLRA rights to concerted activity and mutual aid and protection.

    1. Ben Post author

      @Tim, thanks for the comment! As I said in the post, I was responding to two separate questions I received from my audience, and neither of them had to do with the scenarios you’re referring to. I am familiar with the NLRB protections (and overprotections, it seems) and would certainly speak to those if they were relevant to the conversation. Thanks for keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the labor relations world! Thanks again for your time, Tim.

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