How to use Facebook without getting fired

Government employees can use social media safely if they follow some simple rules

We’ve all heard the Facebook and Twitter horror stories while sitting by the virtual campfire. They normally go something like this: So and so from such and such was fired because his boss saw a picture on his Facebook page where so and so was shaking the hand of a person who was holding a beer! Or perhaps: I know someone who heard from another person that so and so was fired because he tweeted how happy he was to be out of the office early last Friday, and he didn’t know his boss was following his tweets!

The stories, rumors and media coverage might be enough to drive you away from social media for good, especially if you work for the government, where attention to proper risk management is second to none.

But you don’t have to be afraid. With a proper understanding of how to set up and use Facebook and other social media tools, those situations can be avoided. There’s never been a better time to jump into the social media pool. The latest user interface advancements on Facebook have made starting and managing accounts easier and more secure than ever before.


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What is Facebook?

Let’s start with the basics. Facebook is a website that lets you post whatever you choose to display about your life for specific invited guests or the whole world to see. In return, you’ll be amazed, touched and sometimes bored to find out what your friends and colleagues are up to. You can think of it as a blog about you that only those you invite can see — if you change your privacy settings to restrict access. That personal blog-like space is divided into three general areas: your Wall, personal information and photos.

The Wall is a place at the top of your starter page reserved for any thought or statement you wish to broadcast to those you have invited to join your page. The entire collection of your broadcasts and those by your friends are aggregated into a section called the News Feed, a default page that launches whenever you enter your account. It’s also the first thing you see after downloading all your contacts from your e-mail and completing the simple one-step sign-up that requires seven pieces of information: first name, last name, e-mail (twice), password, gender and birthday.

I dislike public speaking and therefore have posted only one broadcast on my Wall in the three years that I’ve had a Facebook page. Like many people, I prefer to see what my friends are doing and saying. I also am very risk-averse and display as little about myself as possible. You can choose to keep a high profile or low profile on Facebook — it’s up to you and how you want to communicate with your friends and online associates.

Pics and privacy

Facebook used to be lax on privacy when it first became popular. At the time, an employer could easily see your pics and access your page. Facebook now offers robust privacy settings that, if configured correctly, will let only your friends and family have access to information about you. You can even configure it so no one can search, try to contact or view anything about you unless they are a friend — someone you approve to be a guest to your profile — or a friend of a friend.

That said, you need to remember that this old adage still applies: You should assume that when you post something online, the universe will see it. However, despite well-documented complaints, the Facebook privacy page is easy to use. It even offers a Preview feature that lets you see what your page would look like to a stranger.

So why did I get a Facebook account in the first place? Or why should you if you’re as risk-averse as I am? First, it’s free. You can’t beat that. Second, it’s so simple and easy to use that it requires little to no tech skill or time. Third, it is the most effective way to share pictures and videos, which is perfect if you live far away from your friends and family.

In fact, I would argue that Facebook's photos section is the catalyst that transformed this site in record-breaking time from a fixation for teenagers and early adopters to an essential tool for mature, late adopters.

To share pictures, simply click on Photos. Then select from one of the following: Upload a Photo, Take a Photo or Create an Album.

The last main section of Facebook, called the Profile, is where things get interesting. For example, you can look for people you went to high school with. Your can post information related to several categories:

  • Basic info, such as your hometown, date of birth and gender.
  • A profile picture.
  • Featured people, which is a fancy way of saying marital status.
  • A series of hobbies outlined by various titles, such as Education and Work, Arts and Entertainment or Sports.
Prudent profiles

It’s important to note that your profile picture is the one image that a boss, prospective employer or judge can see. In an attempt to be cool, many people tend to use a picture of themselves doing something stupid, like the time they did a keg stand before driving a convertible filled with elementary school kids. So regardless of your risk tolerance, I recommend that you use a picture that is as innocent as possible.

My philosophy on the content that you add to your profile is similar to my approach to policies, protocols and security controls in an enterprise. Understand your audience, such as friends or family. Recognize that when people get fired for leaking information, the source usually is friends of friends who see something and then pass it on. Your immediate friends and family don't usually rat you out. But because friends of friends can get limited access to your page, you should carefully consider everything you post there. Personally, I segregate my work life, religious affiliation and political views from my Facebook page altogether.

Maybe it’s a generational attitude or a risk vs. reward calculation, but all my friends and family already know what I do and what I stand for, and I don’t need to advertise it. But that’s me. You might want to use your site to meet new people or get in touch with old friends and therefore share a little more. The point is that you should start with less information and slowly share more as your friends list grows — and as you monitor and better understand who has access to your profile page.

But regardless of your risk tolerance, here's one final Facebook suggestion: Choose a good password to protect your account. Even if you share very little, your life is in that page, and there are criminals from around the globe actively trying to hack your page.

Facebook seems to be proactive in information security. About six months ago, Facebook asked my permission to allow a computer based in the Netherlands to access my page. Facebook knows that I live in the United States, and therefore closed my account immediately pending further validation from me. I changed my password right away and reported an unauthorized user access attempt.

A final piece of advice is to fudge some information when you sign up and enter your private information. For example, if you were born July 15, perhaps you tell Facebook that your birthday is July 12. In that case, if anyone does break in, they will get the wrong info anyway and won’t be able to use it effectively.

Reader Comments

Mon, Aug 15, 2011

mine wasn't even a posting. I had my profile pic set as a tattoo I had just gotten. I got escorted out of the building. just wow.

Sat, Apr 23, 2011 Vince Golubic US

This article concerns me as far as the depth of understanding of social media and the advice given. First, if you work for the government, I would never recommend uploading your email contacts into Facebook. PERIOD. Think about it..would give your personal email contact list out to the whole world? Do we all know where this information will all go someday? 1 year, 3 years? 5 years? Common sense folks. Ask your email contacts BEFORE doing anything with their email addresses. Secondly, if you use social media, pretend for a moment what you post is going to be on the front page of the New York Times, or maybe ask yourself "what can I post that will help or educate someone else in a good way?" Facebook is a powerful tool that if used properly can be a great benefit to help mankind - one friend at a time. Think before you post. Use it responsibly.

Wed, Apr 6, 2011 Paul

The article was written at a level the typical FaceBook user could comprehend. With any social medium common sense should rule. Therein lies the rub. As Pogo said during a fleeting moment of clarity, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Should anyone have any concern about protecting privacy the best advice would be to avoid social media altogether.

Tue, Apr 5, 2011 Nailor

I have always been afraid to use Facebook, like many of the other posters seem to be here. But you know, this makes it sound not so bad, especially since I know now that I can participate as much or as little as I want. Just wanted to say thanks. I'm not so scared anymore, and for someone in their 50s, that is saying something. So I'm off to try it out with your good advice printed out and sitting beside me.

Mon, Apr 4, 2011

BTW, this article advocates a practice that is against Facebook's Terms of Service Agreement. Putting fake information into their profile (e.g., providing a differnt DOB)is not an acceptable privacy measure according to FB. Registration and Account Security

Facebook users provide their real names "and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:
1.You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook..."

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