As we mentioned the other day, the way that social media interacts with our professional lives is changing. A turning point neatly articulated by the current media furore surrounding Sarah Baskerville. The story in itself isn’t particularly ground breaking. The big scoop, as the Daily Mail sees it, is that Sarah Baskerville is a civil servant that drinks occasionally, doesn’t relish every single second of her working life and has some reservations about the government’s new spending plan. She is also described as “an incorrigible contributor to the internet.”

Were it any of the lowlier national papers, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were being hard on ‘Baskers’ simply because she’s a senior civil servant that they know will be an easy target for the readership to get their teeth stuck into. But far be it from us to question the Daily Mail: an institution widely regarded as the last bastion of morality and professionalism in our troubled age.

As you might imagine, Baskers has amassed considerable online support. For a fantastic break down of the original article you can visit Adrian Short’s retort to Quentin Lett’s article for the Daily Mail, here.

The Guardian have come out in support of Baskers, calling for an end to what they lamely describe as “Baskers-gate”. Their report on the story took on a bizarre psychoanalytical bent at one point, adopting the tone of an ITV Drama’s blurb in the TV Guide:

It’s deeply human too: she gets exasperated by work pressures; she is variously bedevilled by self-doubt or frustration… [But] if whingeing or self-pity offends you, well you won’t find much here.”

But the varied and frankly bewildering media response isn’t the issue at hand. The issue at hand is that the social media domain has now become so integrated with our professional lives that the two are becoming inseparable.

Graduates are encouraged to start blogs in an effort to create an employable online profile these days. The Times ran a story earlier in the week about Kyle Clarke, a graduate, whose online ‘Employ Kyle’ campaign has just landed him a job as Digital Marketing Manager for product development group, Knowledge Labs.

So, it’s not all bad. But plenty of people have also lost their jobs because of social media. One woman in Clacton-on-Sea lost her job for posting the status on Facebook: “im so totally bord!!! [sic]” The thing that made this case different to others was that the employee never made public the name of the company. So, was the company sacking her for being bored at work? Or, was it sacking her for making her boredom public, even though her admission was in no way affiliated with the company itself?

My particular favourite along these lines is the would-be Cisco employee who lost his job before he’d even worked the first day for posting:

Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.”

A channel partner advocate for Cisco later found the tweet and passed the sentiment onto his hiring manager.

The unions are kicking a bit of a storm about the latest spate of ‘sacked for social media’ cases.  Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trade Unions Commission, commented:

Most employers wouldn’t dream of following their staff down the pub to see if they were sounding off about work to their friends.”

But moaning to your friends is a private endeavor. Social media, on the other hand, is public. In the case of ‘Baskers’, as much as I hate to say it, she has openly criticized the civil service as well as the current government. For a civil servant of her seniority, this is a contravention of the contract that she signed when she took up the job – the civil service guidelines on the matter can be read, here. So though I don’t condone the Daily Mail’s campaign of victimization, I can’t support her actions.

Unfortunately, the good ol’ days of being able to bad mouth your employers online are over. And whilst these cases may merit media attention for the moment, that’s only because social media is still in its formative years. Boundaries are being defined and as a result people are finding themselves caught out by regulations that they either weren’t aware of, or that simply weren’t there before. In a few years time, being fired for behaving inappropriately online will seem as reasonable as being fired for turning up to work in your underwear.

But, as an employer, what guidelines are there to follow if an employee is caught, via social media, behaving unacceptably? Sharlyn Lauby wrote an article for Mashable, in which she quotes Heather McGough, a staffing consultant for Microsoft on the subject:

If the ‘questionable’ material is not related to job performance then you need to leave it alone and lock it in the vault. However, if the information is related to lack of performance or negatively impacting the company, it is your responsibility to let your HR representative know of the situation. I would recommend feeding the information without bias or opinion and leaving it to human resources to determine appropriate action.”

The tried and tested method: pass the buck to HR. Thanks Heather. But without giving any indication of what “appropriate action” might be, this is actually a valid representation of how little we know on the subject. The problem with this is that the actions of both parties are impinged by this lack of understanding: employees no longer feel comfortable expressing themselves online for fear that their employers – most of whom don’t know what to do in such a situation – might fire them.

Part of the problem seems to be that the area is so darn nebulous at the moment that no one quite knows where they stand. Obviously, in an ideal world employees wouldn’t have any gripes about their job. But that isn’t going to happen. There will always be someone that wants to moan about work. With this in mind, companies need to make their policy abundantly clear to their staff to avoid complications. Also, if you don’t want to get into trouble for expressing ‘undesirable’ opinions online, then don’t do it! Do it the proper, old fashioned way: in person, down the pub, to a friend.