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Australian workers continue to embrace social media to connect with family, friends and colleagues. Yet as recent cases have shown, there's a grey line between your responsibilities as an employee at work and what you post on social media, and it's important to be aware of the pitfalls.

Frank opinions, robust debates and questionable jokes are just some of the day-to-day material you may see browsing your Facebook or Twitter feeds. Traditionally some of these conversations would have been saved for the pub, before we were gifted what is essentially a virtual online megaphone. Unlike the pub and its four walls, what is said on social media is much harder to contain and could eventually come back to haunt you.

The professional risks posed by Facebook and Twitter were highlighted recently when workers were sacked after their personal social media use was deemed inappropriate.

Take for example the highly-publicised incident involving a hotel worker who was sacked over an abusive Facebook post made to a newspaper columnist, or a worker who lost his job over an expletive-filled online rant against his manager posted from his home computer out-of-hours. There have even been instances where an employee’s comments on Facebook were interpreted as their resignation from the company.

While some of these examples cross-the-line in what is considered acceptable behaviour generally, these experiences act as a wake-up call for workers using social media to be careful about what you post and share. Workers face the risk their social media posts will not be simply considered an out-of-work activity and the posts may have a bearing on their employment.

Some common misconceptions around social media use include:

“Maximum privacy settings will protect me”

This has been disproven in court, especially if you have co-workers as friends. Anything can be screen-grabbed for an instant and re-shared to a wider audience. Many people also make the mistake of thinking their comments on a public page (such as a business or celebrity's) are private, because they themselves have a private account – this is not the case.

“My employer doesn’t have a social media policy in place”

While a clear and easily accessible social media policy is important for every business, the absence of such a policy won’t save you. The courts consider website posts that can be seen by an uncontrollable number of people as a public comment.

“The terms of my employment only apply during business hours”

There have been recent cases that show posting on social media outside working hours can be a breach of an employee’s contract. An employers's social media policy will often refer to your personal use outside of work and ask you to avoid bringing the company into disrepute.

“I didn’t post the comments or photo, it was a co-worker”

An employee can be held responsible for content that is shared online, even if they were not the original author. So, it's always a good idea to put an auto-lock on your computer or phone if you've got some particularly pesky co-workers.

What you can do now

Find out if you have a social media policy that can help guide you on what the expectations are at your workplace. If your business doesn't have a policy, read your contract carefully and speak to your manager or HR representative and ask where the line is drawn. The expecations between different occupations and businesses differ wildly, so it's up to you to do your homework.

Thank you for your feedback.

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