Last Updated Dec 22, 2010 11:59 AM EST
The Scenario: A friend has posted a photo on Facebook of you wearing a deliciously inappropriate bathing suit and a live albino python around your neck. You're holding a shot of tequila in one hand, the bottle in the other. On your right, a mariachi trumpet player. On your left and just behind: a fetching — and topless — woman dancing on the bar. Your smile is indicative of your condition. Meanwhile, your friend has tagged you and you've just received a voicemail from your boss asking to see you first thing in the morning.
This situation is becoming so common you could almost call it a neo-classic of the modern-day career: Social media and jobs do not mix. Ask the cop in South Carolina who recently took his cruiser to get washed by a bunch of heavily tattooed, bikini-clad women. The photo of the wet women slithering across the hood of his Monks Corner Town police car landed on Facebook, and he became a former police officer. Or Kevin Colvin, a bank intern who told his boss he had a family emergency and had to skip work Friday. Unfortunately, his boss saw the Facebook photo from that weekend’s Halloween Party (a drunken Colvin dressed as a slutty Tinkerbell) and he was out the door.
Social media can be a minefield for the serious professional. “We work very hard creating this fictional persona at work and we’re comfortable being that person for 8 to 10 hours a day,” says Stanley Bing, a career advice columnist for BNET and Fortune magazine, and author of Crazy Bosses. “When you sign up for a Facebook page, another fictional persona is created, someone you engineer to be cooler and funnier than you really are. And those two personas have a hard time getting along.”
Now your “buddy” has posted a photo that could cost you your job. Your personal brand just took a huge hit across multiple professional channels. “Part of your brand is projecting integrity and maturity,” says Barbara Frankel, a career coach and president-elect of the Career Counselors Consortium in New York City. “Whatever age you are, if you’re in the working world, you’re an adult. You need to take that as seriously as you do your job performance, and manage your brand as intensely as a major corporation does.”
To save your job, you need to address two areas — first comes damage-control. Second — and this applies to everyone, crisis or not — assess your overall Facebook usage and make sure that business and pleasure do not mingle.
1. Clean Up Your Mess
This is priority one. Look no further than the recent public-relations disasters of BP and Toyota to see how damaging a poorly handled crisis can be. As of today, the perception is that you’re immature and out of control (though with a nice smile).
First move: Get the hell in there and take responsibility. Apologize and tell your boss the steps you’ve taken (your buddy did remove the photo, correct?) and that even though this one lapse in behavior went public, it hasn’t and will never affect your performance at work. “It’s crucial to communicate and keep your boss informed,” says Frankel. Because right now the folks upstairs think your boss is the moron who hired you, and your actions have put your boss’s judgment and reputation on the line. If your boss appears informed and in control, that will help him handle the situation.
You might think there’s an argument to be made about how your personal and professional lives are separate and should have no bearing on each other, especially if your work reputation and performance to this point have been immaculate. You’re wrong. As far as your employer is concerned, there is no line of demarcation between your personal and professional life. To them, it’s all professional. “The fact is, not everyone has a sense of humor,” says Bing. “At some companies, there’s latitude. You’ll see senior executives do crazy things at corporate retreats. But if you work for a true suit, you could be screwed.”
If your bosses want to fire you, you don’t have much time or opportunity to convince them otherwise. Try anyway. Aside from, well, begging, here are a few points to bring up: Your economic value to the organization. How much are you worth to them? Are you one of the best at what you do? How hard would it be — and how much would it cost — to replace you? Money is always the bottom line in business and if your continued employment is cost-effective for them, that’s a huge point for you. Offer to submit to a probationary period of several weeks or months to redeem yourself.
If you’re indeed out on your can, go out with class — more class than you showed in your picture, anyway. A graceful, peaceful departure will help ensure that the company will not contest your unemployment benefits. It may also ensure that allies from your old gig — the ones who know you’re not really a raging, Arthur-level drunk — offer future references on your behalf. Then, engage in an immediate CIA-level sweep of social media and the internet to find and modify any and all information about yourself — because any potential new employer will be looking (see the next section for help).
Ah, but if you get a reprieve and a shot at a second life? “Perceptions become reality for many people whether something is true or not,” says Frankel, and right now you’re the “python party person.” All you can do is move on with excellence, absorb the occasional potshot with dignity, and be thankful you still have a job.
2. Engage Preventative Measures
- Narrow your network as much as you can to “only friends.” Never “friend” a coworker or boss. That’s what LinkedIn is for. If colleagues complain that you haven’t accepted their requests, send them a link to this story and mention your python fetish.
- Under privacy settings, for “Photos and videos I’m tagged in,” choose “customize” and narrow the choice to “only me.” You can also specify that only certain people can see the photos and videos.
- Under privacy settings, go to the “Applications and Websites” page and de-select “Enable public search.” This will prevent your Facebook page from appearing in a Google search.
- Under “Account Settings,” also under the “Account tab,” set up notifications to let you know when you’ve been tagged in photos and mentioned in other people’s notes and status updates.
- Check these settings periodically, since Facebook has a nasty habit of changing the default settings on these from time to time.
At the top of the home page, click on the “Account” tab and select “Privacy Settings,” which will allow you to specify which information about you is shared with which friends and other Facebook users. Some recommendations:
Bonus: A Radical Idea
For all those professionals who are serious about their careers, Bing has a suggestion: “Don’t have a Facebook page.” He does think it’s necessary and even vital if you’re marketing something — a book, music, or something you’ve created. But if you work in a professional environment, it can only hurt you (one option might be to set up an account where you only connect to family and close friends). “Facebook is for younger people with less to lose,” Bing says. “The idea of ‘unforced errors’ is don’t leave yourself needlessly vulnerable to mistakes.”
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