Today, we are focusing on a subject that we discussed in earlier blog posts and podcasts — managing your career with a purpose, something I call purposeful career management.

Purposeful career management covers an array of topics but today I want to zero in on awareness and what you post on social media.

We begin with a tragic story about a 24-year-old lab technologist at Onslow Memorial Hospital, a 162-bed facility located in Jacksonville, North Carolina who was reportedly terminated from her job last week because of an errant post to Facebook.
While working last Wednesday, a hospital lab tech heard that a mother and her two children, injured in a one-car automobile accident, were being transported to the OMH emergency center. The mother, who was ejected from the vehicle, died but the two children who were with her survived.

After leaving work at 4:30, the lab tech, Ms. Olivia O’Leary, who had worked for Onslow Memorial for two years, said she read the articles about the auto accident on Facebook and posted, “should have worn her seatbelt…”

Ms. O’Leary said she then went to the gym and ran errands. Later she learned from a friend that her Facebook post had blown up on social media and people were very angry.

She explained that the purpose of her post was to remind people that wearing seat belts saves lives. While working for the hospital Ms.O’Leary said she had seen a lot of tragedy because people do not wear seat belts. “The city has had a lot of recent vehicle deaths.”

The problem is that when it comes to a social media platform like Facebook, it is hard to measure intent based on such a terse post and the people who saw that post did not take it the way Ms. O’Leary said she intended. Before she knew it, the comment had spread everywhere and she was now the center of some unhappy and unwanted attention throughout the community.

It is important to note than in a subsequent online response in the original thread, Ms. O’Leary responded to another post, “Yepp [sic], I was working today when they came into the ER.”

It is also important to understand that prior to Ms. O’Leary’s Facebook posts, news stories were already circulating online that the injured were transported to Onslow Memorial and that state police had confirmed that the driver was not wearing her seatbelt, a common problem in the county, state police subsequently said.

The two young children in the car at the time were wearing seat belts and suffered only minor injuries when the Ford Explorer their mother was driving ran off the road and flipped over when she overcorrected, police said.

That comment, Ms. O’Leary believes, connected her original post specifically to the victim, Ms. Autumn Sharp, a 20-year-old mother of three, a woman who her family described as an “awesome” mom and terrific friend, wrote Jacksonville Daily News reporter Amanda Thames who covered the story.

The next morning, when Ms. O’Leary reported to work, she was told that the hospital was looking into the situation. By mid-afternoon she was fired. She believes that the hospital saw her two posts as a HIPPA violation and that led to her termination.

Hospital spokesperson Amy Sousa, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, said her organization could not comment on the reason Ms. O’Leary is no longer employed at Onslow Memorial.

Ms. O’Leary said she went public with news about her termination because she wants to share her side of the story. “I don’t want my job back, I just want my name cleared so it doesn’t hurt my future. She said she does not want to bash the hospital but her sudden dismissal really hurt.”

By the way, one of the local women who helped shame Ms. O’Leary online later admitted remorse after learning Ms. O’Leary had been fired and posted a public apology.

Said hospital representative Sousa: “As a hospital, all of us are bound by HIPPA.”

She told the Jacksonville Daily News that in cases where a review of employee conduct is warranted the hospital interviews the employee to talk about the concern, they review the statements and the employee’s personnel file. They also interview any witnesses, direct supervisors, human resources and legal counsel before making a decision.

Whether Ms. O’Leary committed a HIPPA violation or not is certainly not for me to judge. The one thing I can say is that most hospitals are hypersensitive about possible HIPPA violations and explaining these rules of the road are usually an important part of new employee orientation at every hospital across the country. But then, that is not the point I believe we need to focus on here.

A 24-year-old is out of a job and may encounter some headwinds in finding a new position because many hospitals are notoriously risk averse when it comes to employing someone who commits a highly visible mistake, even a minor one.

In reviewing the news reports, I am inclined to think that her posts were an unintentional crossing of the HIPPA line but I do not know that for certain. I certainly hope her point was not to shame the mother for not wearing her seatbelt. What I do know is that the more important message here is this:

That while social media is a wonderful tool for connecting with our loved ones, friends, colleagues and a broader number of people in our community, there are some potentially dangerous potholes that can generate all manner of bad consequences and Ms. O’Leary just hit one.

The best rule of thumb, one I must confess that I learned the hard way, is to THINK before you post. It is so easy to make a comment that can be misunderstood and blow up into a career damaging controversy.

A digital agency executive quoted in the news reports about this tragedy put it best: “Most communication is nonverbal,” said Cindy Edwards, president of 17blue digital agency. “Most of what we understand comes from a person’s tone of voice, posture and the look on their face,” Ms. Edwards explained.

What can easily be seen as cruel or insensitive could be something else entirely, Ms. Edwards said.

And Ms. Edwards added an important cautionary note: Even if you delete a post, that does not mean that it goes away. People take screen shots and forward information with regularity and post that information in other places.

The best protection: think before you post. Be purposeful with your decision. Rethink what you have said and ask yourself if it there is any negative implications to what you have written. This is especially true when you are trying to be funny or sarcastic.

As you advance in your career, good judgment is part of the hiring evaluation process. Checking a candidate’s online presence, including the nature of their posts, is part of the vetting process. Posting comments that may be seen by others as in bad taste or the posting of unflattering photos at parties or other events, are truly a gift that keeps on giving.

Do not withdraw from social media. Platforms like LinkedIn, SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook are now firmly entrenched in our everyday lives. Much good can comes from maintaining closer relationships. But given the power these platforms have to spread information — whether it is true or false, whether is perceived the same way it was intended, or not —this medium is worthy of enormous respect.

“Think before you post. Once they are out there, they are out there,” Ms Edwards proclaimed.

In a hyper competitive job market, you do not need any self-inflicted career management wounds.

What was my hard-earned social media lesson, you ask?

During the last primary campaign I called out a certain candidate for one of the most blatant misstatements of truth I can ever remember seeing a Presidential candidate make. My tweet was not snarky nor did it use offensive language. I urged truthfulness for the good of the nation with the admonition that great leadership is built on trust.

My repayment for asking for truth? For the next two days, I was trolled unmercifully by that candidate’s supporters with the message that began “Stop Lying” and included my name and finished with several unmentionable vitriolic comments about my real intentions.

That twitter post and the subsequent troll attack is not the kind of exposure that is favorable to anyone’s career brand. I posted a simple unequivocal message never dreaming the response would be so large and vitriolic.

I should have stopped before I hit the send button. I should have been more purposeful in thinking about the consequences.

Needless to say, I learned a very important lesson from that experience.

Next week we will take a look into the rising tide of health system and hospital layoffs and how this unsettling news, if it continues, will require some adjustments in career management.

And finally,

Leadership is based on trust. Trust requires truth. Without truth there can be no trust. When trust is lost, leaders fail.