Social Networking: Are You In Control?

Jim Luff
Posted on October 20, 2009
LOOSE PAGES SINK CAREERS: From obsessive compulsive addiction to lost productivity and company secrets spilled to the world — What control do you have over your employees and their social network sites?
To grasp the popularity of social networking, let me give you some quick stats according to a 2009 Anderson Analytic report. The growth and proliferation of sites is breathtaking. It may be the greatest technology seen in our lifetime short of putting a man on the moon. There is a total population in the U.S. of 305 million. About 187 million use the Internet; 110 million use a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace. Of that, 78 million are on Facebook; 67 million use MySpace; 17 million use Twitter; and 11 million use LinkedIn.
In April 2008, 1.7 million minutes were spent on Facebook by users. In April 2009, that number jumped to 13.9 billion minutes as we became more comfortable and familiar with it. Wth this growth and technology, come new problems. Things that probably should be illegal are not simply because the laws don't exist or they do and no one is quite sure how to apply them or even who to call if they suspect something illegal.
Do you call the police to report that your ex has posted ugly things about you on Facebook? Do you call them when your ex posted some unflattering photos of you? How about that job you missed out on because during an interview you discover the interviewer visited your MySpace page and decided you were not right for the job on that basis? Is it illegal? Should employers be allowed to do this? There are those who say, "Absolutely, you should use every tool at your disposal to make sure you get the right person." After all, training is a very expensive cost for most companies and many pay for background checks so here is one that is free. There are those that say it invades the privacy of the person. Does it? The Internet is an open book. Once it is on the Internet, the Internet is a public place, much like a public park. The fact is, a 2009 study by Harris Interactive found that 45% of all human resources professionals search the pages of applicants. They don't like indiscreet photos, talk of drugs or alcohol, or badmouthing former employers. These things can ruin a job opportunity.
Three weeks ago, a New Jersey jury found that a restaurant did not violate employee privacy or cause emotional distress by accessing an invitation-only Myspace page. The page served as a venting spot for employees. However, the restaurant was found to be in violation of federal and New Jersey laws prohibiting accessing the information without permission. The case highlights challenges employers face with respect to employees’ social networking that contains work-related speech. This decision doesn't restrict the rights of an employer to monitor communications and information within its own computer networks. It demonstrates the risks of accessing an employee’s online content without the employee’s permission. Employers should implement written guidelines that address employee work-related comments on social networking sites when referring to the company, its employees, services, and clients. That is fair enough. You would not tolerate an employee trash talking your company around town if you could prove it so putting it in print surely documents it is not a simple rumor.
When a Burger King employee posted a YouTube video of him taking a bath in the restaurant sink, it made national news and he was fired! Same for a dumbo who called in sick but then posted on his Facebook page that he called in because he was hungover. Then there was a hospital employee who thought patient photos would be good on her site. Virgin Atlantic fired an entire crew of a flight for comments made on Facebook about a particular flight. There is even a term for people that get fired because of their social networking site. They are "dooces," or "dooced," because of a blog site called where a young lady named Heather Armstrong blogged about her employer and made headlines when she was fired over the comments.
Obviously another problem is that while performing the research you personally may get sucked in to Farmville and Mafia Wars on Facebook, and forget that you were trying to find out what an applicant does for fun and look at all his photos.  Then there are your employees who just can't get enough of Facebook or MySpace and you find them redesigning their page on company time on a company computer. Of course you can't block these sites from your staff because you constantly ask your staff to repost specials your company is offering to spread the word about your weekend special to even more people.
Looking at it that way, the Internet and in particular the social media scene allows you to go to your own commercials as often as you want without having to pay anything, so the more "friends" they have, the better. Social networking is clearly a major factor in life anyway you look at it. If you’re not social networking today, you will be tomorrow.
— Jim Luff, LCT Contributing Editor

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Jim Luff Contributing Editor
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