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Think Twice About What You Do After Work and What You Post on the Internet

11/10/2014 12:03 EST | Updated 01/09/2015 05:59 EST

Kinky sex, a reference to Fifty Shades of Grey, and the CBC. Those are three things I never expected to find in the same sentence. But ever since former Q host Jian Ghomeshi said on his Facebook page that the CBC had turfed him for fear his sexual predilections would be made public, there has been little else that interests Canadians.

Since then, a roster of women have come forward and alleged they were assaulted by the popular radio host, adding new gravity to this tale, including a shocking account by the author of "The Mom Shift", Reva Seth.

The shocking story continues to evolve as more information surfaces. But what we do know for sure is that some activity in Mr. Ghomeshi's private life was deemed by him important enough to inform his employer, the CBC, and for management to decide to terminate him.

In a completely unrelated story, an all-boys school recently fired a female teacher for appearing nude in films in the 1970s. Thanks in part to social media, these two events, which had their genesis more than 40 years apart, exemplify a new era in which one's sexual history is increasingly in the public eye -- for all employers to see.

Every video, photo or text becomes part of that person's permanent online history, remains easily searchable, and exceedingly difficult to erase. The line between employees personal and public lives is becoming increasingly blurred. After all, an entire generation of kids born since the advent of the Internet considers taking nude pictures of themselves and sending it their love interest the equivalent of foreplay. It's this same generation that will soon become our teachers, politicians and business leaders.

We need to figure out -- and quickly -- how to align our private and professional lives to not only protect ourselves but our employers. The question remains: Where do we start?

"Clearly, we want to be able to draw some lines between our private lives and our work lives. In principle, our employers have no more place in our bedrooms than the government does. But, for some jobs, a certain kind of image is an essential job qualification," said Chris MacDonald, associate professor of law and business, and an ethics expert at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management.

Part of what the employer is paying for, especially when it comes to media personalities, athletes and some CEOs, is a face that represents their brand.

So how transparent do employees need to be with their employers? Prof. MacDonald said that if your personal life jeopardizes your professional or public role, it's reasonable to expect you to warn potential employers, but only really substantial risks need to be divulged. On the employer's side, if a lot hangs on their employees being "squeaky-clean," it's up to them to do a thorough background check.

"I would advise employers and employees to proceed cautiously, and to realize that there are important values competing here. Everyone deserves privacy, but when private behaviour jeopardizes an employer's goals, then the employer can reasonably be expected to take action," he said.

Luckily for employers, due diligence is made simpler with a few clicks of a mouse. The film history of the Montreal private school teacher who was let go was reportedly on the IMDB movie website for all to see. If so, it's surprising that her previous career took so long to discover.

In additional to such online checks, there are other tactics employers should institute to guard their reputations, according to David Whitten, a partner at Whitten & Lublin in Toronto. Potential employers should ask appropriate questions in an interview, including "Have you ever engaged in conduct which may bring the company into disrepute?"

Mr. Whitten also suggests instituting a code of conduct that applies to all employees and suggests maintaining appropriate behaviour both inside and outside the workplace. Companies can also make it clear that any private activity that has the potential to bring the employer into disrepute will result in termination of that person's position.

Such tactics leads to other grey zones, including what constitutes disrepute. Does a nude photo of yourself as a teen threaten a company's reputation more than 20 years later? How about a photo of one's private parts? In this day and age, can we really all agree on what constitutes "appropriate?"

"Employees should always be mindful that comments and postings on the Internet are permanent and publicly accessible. Therefore, they really need to consider whether the content they post is appropriate by asking, "Would an employer care?" Mr. Whitten said.

It's a brave new world in terms of how much our personal lives will come back to haunt our professional ones, and employees and employers alike need to quickly figure out where to draw the line.

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