Peacock Tales • Fall 2010

Social Networking in the Workplace
By Susan T. Roberts

What risks do you run as an employee, and what restrictions can you impose as an employer, where social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, MyLife and You Tube are in use in the workplace?

As the popularity of such sites has grown, many employees are
taking more time at work to tweet, play online games, surf the Internet and e-mail their friends. Employers, worried about the potential drain on productivity and the possible risks associated with such activity, can prohibit employees from access to such websites. However technology blurs the lines between work and home, an outright ban on such activity may not only cause an outcry among staff, but might itself be the target of legal challenges under laws guaranteeing the right of privacy or laws that restrict employers from regulating lawful off-premises conduct.

There have been a number of cases where an employee’s misuse of social media has lead to their dismissal. And it appears that these aren’t just outliers, but the result of a serious crackdown by employers on tracking their employees’ online activities. One reported case involved a woman out on sick leave who told her employer that she had to be away from her monitor lying down in the dark. Her employer saw that she was active on Facebook and consequently terminated her, not for her activity on Facebook but rather, for what the employer perceived was an abuse of trust on the part of the employee. In California, five nurses were fired for allegedly discussing patient cases on Facebook. In North Carolina, a waitress was fired for complaining about a customer on her Facebook page venting about the customer’s lousy tip. A couple of days later, her boss called her into the office. He had a copy of her Facebook post and informed her that when she complained about the customer online she violated a company policy.

An example much closer to home is that of our own Pittsburgh Pirates’ mascot who was fired this past summer after posting a critical comment about the team’s choice to extend the contract of two of the team’s managers. “That means a 19-straight losing streak. Way to go Pirates.” His termination came within hours of his posting, though he was rehired because the company’s termination policy had not been followed.

Most employers have Internet and e-mail use policies. Those who don’t should put them in place and inform employees that nothing they write in work e-mails or their Internet activity should be considered private. Work e-mails and Internet use should be monitored periodically to make sure that employees are using these resources consistent with their employer’s Internet, harassment and discrimination policies. However, employers should be sure that they have a legitimate business reason before looking at an employee’s e-mails and social networking activity.

Employees should be cautious in their use of such sites. Guarding one’s own reputation and identity on the net is very important. For instance, think twice before you post anything about your boss or your human resources woes to the social networking platforms -- it could cost you your job and possibly future job offers. Avoid adding work colleagues as friends on social networks or discussing work-related issues or naming clients. Even if you do use common sense in your postings, it’s important to remember that when you’re behind the corporate firewall, there’s a good chance that anything you write in email, instant messaging, or social media is being monitored.

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