Social Media

Q: My son finally found his perfect job in a high-pressure, professional customer-service role, where he has gotten kudos from his customers and co-workers.

An unfortunate incident recently occurred: A customer was splashed — through no fault of his — with hot coffee he was delivering, and he provided first aid.

The next day, he contacted her via her LinkedIn page to thank her for her graciousness after the incident, and she filed a complaint with his employer for that. I don’t believe she complained about the accident, but she probably felt he overstepped by locating her on LinkedIn. It is a violation of company policy to contact customers through social media, and he was invited to resign in lieu of termination.

At his first interview afterward, he was peppered with questions about this, and I fear it will be the same at all future interviews. He said he understands the importance of policies and has learned a valuable lesson — but how else can he keep this from derailing future job interviews?

A: Ouch, all around. Ironically, it sounds as though the accident wouldn’t have cost him his job, but for his follow-up.

Because the company offered him the option to resign, I suspect his former employer doesn’t intend to volunteer information to reference-seekers beyond “he resigned.” If he can verify that with his former HR department, then it’s up to him whether he divulges or omits his social media misstep in interviews. For example, he could say he wanted to go somewhere specifically offering [a feature the prospective company offers].

Then again, having resigned without another job lined up could make him look impulsive and unreliable. And if he is uncomfortable delivering a just-true-enough explanation, a sharp interviewer will pick up on that discomfort.

So that leaves the option of continuing to tell the truth, emphasizing the compassionate impulse — following up with an injured customer — behind his poor judgment call.

But I wonder: Does he understand what he did wrong? Beyond violating company policy, there’s an etiquette to social media that someone in customer service would do well to master.

Any attempt to contact a stranger online should pass through four gates: consent, channel, context and cause. To wit: Do I have (1) this person’s consent to make contact (2) through this channel (3) in the context of our current relationship (4) for this cause?

Here’s my breakdown:

Reader’s son took it on himself to track down the customer, so he did not have her explicit consent to contact her.

And even if, arguably, having an online presence means implicitly consenting to contact, LinkedIn — designed for professional networking — is not the appropriate channel for pursuing a personal matter.

Next, every interaction he has had with her up to now has been in the context of customer service, representing his employer. Did he know whether his employer would have approved of his follow-up? Suppose the customer or her lawyer had read his message as an attempt to shush her, or as an admission of fault?

Finally, even if he simply felt guilty and wanted to check on her well-being, that personal cause still doesn’t justify crossing the aforementioned boundaries.

Bottom line: He can’t go wrong by assuming that any contact he initiates with customers outside the official channels and context of his job — from following on Facebook to asking for a date — is unwelcome.

I don’t mean to harp. But understanding and taking to heart the broader context of his mistake is the key to showing that he truly has learned his lesson.

Miller offers weekly advice on workplace dramas and traumas. You can send questions to


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