5You probably heard about the (former) PayPal executive who went on a Twitter rampage one Friday night and fired off a bunch of nasty tweets about the people he worked with, after which his two-month-old career at that company not-unexpectedly ended. Although the exec in question later offered the excuse that a new phone was at fault for making the comments public when he had intended them to be private, and then resorted to the “I didn’t get fired because I had already quit” rationalization, there’s little doubt that such actions are likely to put a damper on a future job search. What potential employer wouldn’t wonder what such a job candidate might be saying within a few weeks about the new company?

Not all career-destroying moves are quite as high profile as that one, but they can be just as lethal.  And these days, electronic communications and social media seem to be playing a big role in bringing about termination of employment. This is especially true for those in the IT industry because we tend to use those technologies to a greater extent than workers in other fields.  And because email, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, etc. are so completely integrated into our lives, we get careless about how, where and when we use them. Not all activities that can end a career are committed online, though.  Here are five things (out of hundreds) that you should avoid doing if you want to keep your IT job:

  • Bad-mouthing anybody at all. The PayPal fiasco involved disparaging remarks about co-workers, but you can get in trouble for making critical comments about people outside the company, too. Making offensive statements about your customers, vendors, or partner companies is a big no-no, too. Celebrities and politicians aren’t fair game, either. That ditsy movie star you made fun of or that senator or president whose policies you called idiotic might be favorites of someone high up in the company, or your unfavorable opinion might even make its way back to the famous person and you could find your company in the line of fire from his/her fans or attorneys. Racial or gender/sexually-oriented comments are particularly dangerous, even when you’re “just joking.” And remember that even if you’re speaking verbally in your own home, modern technology can be used to capture your words so they can be used against you, as the owner of a professional sports team recently found out. Many companies even have policies that prohibit saying anything bad about its competitors. The safest tactic is to follow the advice of mothers everywhere and “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”
  • Posting pictures of yourself in embarrassing situations – or having friends who share too much about you. Sure, what you do when you’re “off duty” is your own business, except when you share it with the world. We live in a world where it’s easy and fun to snap a photo and upload it to a social site, no matter where you are and what you’re doing. But sometimes it’s best to do your partying in private. Occasionally posting a picture of yourself having wine with dinner is unlikely to be a problem (unless you’re the IT manager for an anti-alcohol group) but those hilarious photos – or worse, videos – of you getting falling-down drunk and mooning the waiters might not go over so well with your boss. That’s even more true if your company affiliation is prominently displayed in your profile. Just diligently refraining from posting indiscreet photos or comments on your own timeline isn’t enough. Depending on their own privacy settings, your friends’ photos or comments in which you’re tagged may be viewable by your friends or even the public. Oops.
  • Documenting illegal, unethical or unauthorized activities. If you really want to be smart about not putting your job in danger, you won’t be committing crimes, engaging in immoral behavior, violating company policies or breaking industry rules in the first place. But if you do those things, for goodness sake, don’t provide a written “confession” in email or an instant message or worst of all, on your Facebook page.  The story is getting downright old: even at the executive level, people can’t seem to resist putting it in writing when they do things they know are wrong. We’ve all heard the saying about giving them enough rope to hang themselves but the modern version only requires giving them access to a computer.
  • Lying. There’s a reason for the cliché that “honesty is the best policy.” Whether it’s lying on your resume to get the job, lying to your boss about being sick when you want to take the day off to go to the sci-fi convention, or lying to try to cover up your mistakes, once you’ve been caught in a lie on the job, your reputation will be irreparably damaged. Even if you lie for an ostensibly honorable reason, such as to protect a colleague or to save your boss from being embarrassed, there’s a good chance the dishonesty will blow back on you at some point. Often it’s not about the lie itself; it’s about the trust that, once broken, is difficult or impossible to rebuild.
  • Abusing your authority and misusing your ability. As an IT professional, you often have access to private personal information about the people you work with and sensitive business information about the company. You can read others’ email, see what web sites they’ve visited, perhaps even track where they go physically and listen in on their conversations. You may be able to view files that contain trade secrets, plans for future products, even information related to litigation or other sensitive legal issues. You are probably technologically capable of logging the keystrokes of employees, capturing their screens, and logging their connections. You can take down a person’s system or preventing particular people from accessing particular resources. One of the fastest ways to get in trouble at work is to misuse that “perk” of your position for your benefit or amusement. As with lying, it’s about betrayal of trust.

In regard to some of the points made above, it’s important to know your company’s priorities and philosophies and the image it wants to put forth. You might get away with more of the “party animal sharing” if you work for a small, hip startup in the entertainment industry than if you’re an IT pro in a big, conservative company. On the other hand, the “we’re all family” concept popular in small startups might mean that public criticism (or what is perceived as criticism) of co-workers or other departments might be taken more seriously and more personally than in a giant conglomerate. It’s likely, though that no company of any size will be pleased with you if you broadcast company secrets or publicly proclaim your engagement in illegal acts, and you’re almost certain to make enemies if you violate the privacy of your co-workers or become known for not telling the truth.