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How can employees also be social-media activists?

(Image credit: Alamy - By Zulekha Nathoo - 27th November 2020)

Experts say that unfiltered social activism could cost you valuable career currency. What should workers who want to raise their voices do?

If earlier this year, you’d asked Jarred Harewood about his social media habits, the 32-year-old Brooklyn-based software developer would have described himself as “very, very careful” about what he posted. To avoid alienating friends and colleagues, he didn’t talk politics on his feed, but instead kept it light with snapshots of food and travel. But he says being careful isn’t an option anymore, especially as a black American.

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and many other black people at the hands of police have recently made him “significantly more vocal and outspoken” on Instagram. In his stories, he posts about Black Lives Matter and issues at the centre of the recent US election, such as health care. He knows it’s a fine line to walk these days.

“You could lose your job for these views and you may not have a lot of options out there,” says Harewood. “Each person has to weigh that themselves.”

As huge organisations such as Amazon, Netflix, the Pokémon Company, pharmaceutical giant Novartis and the US’s National Football League have publicly expressed support for social justice issues, an increasing number of people have been empowered to raise their voices in their own workplaces. And there’s lots to talk about: inequities at school and work as well as views about issues such as politics, public health, the environment, privilege and bigotry.

Of course, workers have been activists for years – but it used to be the case that if you were rallying over the weekend, your colleagues and boss could be none the wiser on Monday. Plus, the relationship people expect to have with their workplace has changed over the generations. While baby boomers were traditionally motivated by company loyalty and duty, younger workers place a high value on authenticity and are civic minded. They may be less willing to mute their beliefs.

- It used to be the case that colleagues and recruiters would be none the wiser if you were an activist in your off time – but, today, it's much more complicated (Credit: Alamy)


So, now, with so much activism shifting to social media for so many, it’s not so easy to delineate activist from worker bee. And, unfortunately, experts say that being unfiltered could cost you valuable career currency. According to a growing area of research, social-media activism and gainful employment may be at odds. What’s a worker who wants to raise their voice to do?

It's a tricky line to walk. In a study published earlier this year, researchers at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) found that “opinionatedness” on social media negatively affected perceptions of job suitability among recruiters. In the experiment, hundreds of hiring managers were shown the same Facebook photo of a simulated job candidate. The subject stood in front of an American flag with one of two captions: either a benign comment referring to a “beautiful day”, or a more lengthy, opinionated version about politics and voting. It ended with, “My voice will be heard. Will yours?” While the photos and corresponding credentials were identical, evaluations were lower for the candidates with the political caption.

Study author Michael J Tews, associate professor of hospitality management at Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, believes that the findings are more pertinent than ever. There's high unemployment, a politically charged climate, increased remote work and more virtual interviews. “Throughout the whole employee selection process, it’s all about trying to figure out who you are: your abilities, what your personality characteristics are, what your values are,” says Tews. “So, when I see you, as an employer, being loud, extreme and divisive, I’m going to see you as being antagonistic versus agreeable. And that really deals with harmony in the workplace.”

With so much activism shifting to social media for so many, it’s not so easy to delineate activist from worker bee

These conclusions chime with findings from a similar University of Pennsylvania and Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) study. Researchers found having an “open strategy” when it came to social media use – expressing oneself authentically and with little heed to personal and professional boundaries – was the riskiest approach to getting hired and getting ahead.

Deciding what and how much to post is a balancing act, says Comila Shahani-Denning, a psychology professor at Hofstra University in New York. Her research with faculty members has focused on social media, bias and hiring. She says some recruiters might only check out your profile on LinkedIn, while others will do a deep dive including examining the groups to which you belong and even your re-posts. Shahani-Denning says while the ethical lines around social media as a tool for researching candidates can be blurry, most will unofficially admit to using one form or another in addition to reviewing a resumé.

She adds that it’s important to “recognise that [what you post] might have an impact”. For instance, is the information you want to share consistent with how you want to be perceived by others? “If it’s important to you and it’s salient to you, that’s it. But it might hold you back from getting a job.”

In a Penn State study, hiring managers were shown this photo of 'Ethan' in both a political and apolitical context, then asked to evaluate the candidate (Credit: Rachel Kenney)


For Atlanta-based Paige McGaughey, standing up for her beliefs at work has come at a price. The grade-eight teacher’s Facebook profile page contains posts about voting, championing LGBTQ rights and supporting BLM. She says they are messages geared toward equality – a value she finds particularly important when teaching children and raising a gay daughter of her own. But it’s been a battle to stay open and honest on her feed. “People screen-shot things and then they go and take it to a principal,” she says. The teacher of 20 years was recently criticised by multiple parents for having a Black Lives Matter poster visible in her classroom during a virtual-school session. After the complaint escalated to human resources, the 53-year-old took to her personal Facebook page to discuss what had happened, saying she was trying to be an “ally” and “inclusive”. The post attracted local media attention.

McGaughey says she’s lucky that the majority of families and her school principal have backed her choices so far. The poster is staying up, and so is her Facebook account. But she feels the need to self-monitor more now than ever before with the amount of scrutiny online. She warns that in these polarising times, it could take very little to suffer much more severe consequences if an individual makes one misstep. “There are some teachers who have lost their jobs because of similar things like this. It’s a crazy time and it makes me nervous,” she says.

Schoolteacher Paige McGaugey has been a vocal activist online, but has had to monitor her posting more as parents have criticised her (Credit: Paige McGaughey)


I think people want everyone just to be very homogeneous in the workplace. Even when they value diversity, it’s within certain parameters – Michael J Tews

And, even for those employers who encourage their staff to engage with social issues, Penn State’s Tews questions whether organisations actually want disparate views in the office. “Partially, I think people want everyone just to be very homogeneous in the workplace. Even when they value diversity, it’s within certain parameters.” And because employees represent the workplace’s image whether on the clock or not, he adds that “organisations could very well fear negative bottom-line results because customers may have adverse reactions when employees are controversial”.

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, a professor with UQAM’s School of Management and a co-author of the 2015 study on social media and work, says the advice she used to give to workers was to be careful and avoid posting sensitive content. “But now... my sense is that everything has become political, including not sharing. It’s increasingly hard to be neutral," she says.

As the world’s political divide doesn’t appear to be slowing – in fact, the opposite – many workers may find keeping quiet difficult to swallow. However, there are ways to maintain online activism in an employer-conscious manner.

A simple way to keep yourself away from the eyes of recruiters and supervisors is to restrict your profiles and feeds to the highest privacy settings. But, if you want to share your opinions wider on public accounts, consider sticking to good news instead of negative coverage.

And, no matter what you do, keep in mind how your posts and re-posts will age. “Your political opinions can shift,” says Ollier-Malaterre. “So, if you share something that's one or the other side right now, and then evolve, you leave traces that will persist in 10, 15, 20 years from now.” In other words, even if the things that fuel you now don’t affect your career, your opinions could come back to bite you if they don’t mature gracefully.

On the flip side, Shahani-Denning says sometimes, expressing political or social opinions online can help you find a workplace that matches your values, which could create a positive and sustainable employment situation. Once you’re in seat, you may want to also discuss social media policies with employers directly. This may help you suss out your company’s comfort level with activism – and maybe enable you to find a happy medium.

Software developer Harewood believes there’s always a risk to posting views online, especially in a challenging labour market. But constantly editing yourself can also be exhausting. “Being able to be myself – genuinely recognising there really isn't a difference between my political self and my work self – …that's something that's not going to change.”

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