The Unspoken Online Code of Conduct: What Employers Expect

(U.S. Army)

When you were in the military, rules and standards were clearly articulated. You understood chain of command, protocol and what was expected of you -- or you learned them very quickly.

Now, as you exit from the military, you’ve recognized how important social media and online positioning can be to advancing your career. But there appear to be no rules, guidelines or standards to follow to remain safe and in compliance. 

Or are there?

Whether your reason for being active online is to position your personal brand, attract potential employers, build a connection with your boss, raise your credibility within specific markets, engage with friends and colleagues or keep tabs on what’s happening with others, there are indeed written and unwritten rules and a code of conduct for how to behave online. 

Let’s look at what hiring managers, recruiters and your boss look for and how they expect to see you behave on social media.

Hiring Managers and Recruiters 

Today, people in a position to recruit, interview and consider job applicants can look online to see what they can learn about a candidate. Public information posted online could include one’s LinkedIn profile, open Facebook and Instagram pages and comments shared to public forums like blogs, news articles and public commentary sites (like Reddit or Medium). 

This information is readily available, and some hiring professionals will use them to see what they can discover about a candidate’s interests, choices and professionalism by seeing what they post and how they engage with others. 

While they’re not looking for you to behave in a perfect, almost sterilized manner, they are expecting certain things. They’re looking for professionalism and ensuring you refrain from engaging in speech that is inappropriate, hateful or demeaning to others. They want to see whether your speech represents the company’s values. 

Beyond this, they may look for consistency in what you mention in a job interview, on a resume or in conversation with what they see online. 

Years ago, a recruiter from a large aerospace company told me, “If a candidate tells me they’re passionate about archery, because they saw it on my LinkedIn profile that I competed in college, then I expect to see them post about archery online. When I don’t see one mention of anything archery-related on any of their social media profiles, I question their authenticity.”

Similarly, a hiring professional may look to see evidence of how you’ve applied your skills, experience and training. While you list accomplishments on your resume, are there online sites that showcase your contributions, successes and any awards you have achieved?

Finally, a hiring professional may be looking to see how you conduct yourself with your connections: Do you celebrate their successes and accomplishments? Do you refer and endorse them publicly? Are you sharing information in forums and groups, showcasing your leadership in your field? 

Your Boss’ Expectations 

Most, if not all, companies today have written guidelines for social media use. Some of these policies may feel loose and vague (“use your best judgment when posting online”). Others may be more direct (“refrain from using the company name in your online profiles or comments”). It’s always best to know what your employer expects from you when it comes to online behavior.


Your boss will be familiar with these guidelines and expect you to comply. Beyond this, they may look for you to showcase your talents, skills, insights and value to a broader community, thus reinforcing the company brand. 


Your boss is also watching to see how you treat others (are you collaborative, supportive, encouraging and otherwise acting consistent with your values and brand?), what you share (do you rant about politics or speak about innovation and trends in your industry?) and what you reveal about yourself (are you talking about things online that can help your boss learn more about you and what you care about?).


Always assume that your boss, their boss, other managers, colleagues and even competitors are looking at your online behavior. Everything you do online gives them more insight into who you are, who you know and your value to the organization.

Authenticity and Social Media

With all these unwritten (or written) rules, guidelines and protocols, how can you show up authentically online and not make a misstep? Here are some of my best practices for staying real and staying safe online:

1. Remember that being authentic and genuine is not the same as being transparent. Authenticity necessitates that when you give an answer or share something, you’re being genuine and real. Authenticity does not mean you must reveal every aspect of your personal life, health, career, professional goals, etc. Transparency online can be tricky and risky.

2. Speak the truth online. It can be tempting to want to stretch the truth to get more attention online, but this is not a good approach. When you’re known to share misinformation online, people may not trust you and this can damage your reputation and career.

3. Manage how you’re seen online. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Am I sharing who I am and what I care about, or do I scrub my online content such that I’ve removed my humanness? 
  • Am I revealing too much about myself online? 
  • Am I consistent across all platforms -- do I look and sound like the same person on LinkedIn as I do on Instagram? 
  • Am I mindful about the people I connect with? Could their own reputations and online conduct put my reputation at risk?
  • When I post, am I considering the long- and short-term implications of what I’m sharing? Could I be putting others (and my employer) at risk by what I’m sharing?
  • Am I following any published company protocols for online behavior?

It’s tempting to “wing it” when engaging online. The online space is fun, fast-paced and full of social interaction with strangers. Just remember, your employer is watching. Industry leaders are noting your actions. Your future boss, later, will see what you posted today. Are you confident they’ll all be pleased with what they see?

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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