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Social network monitoring: Are employers ‘unethical’ or showing initiative?

Social Network Monitoring: Are employers ‘unethical’ or showing initiative?
by Michelle Webber

You may be familiar with the commotion caused by employees photographing themselves bathing in KFC washtubs and posting it on MySpace, or the Dominos employees’ repellent food habits posted on YouTube in the U.S. It’s no wonder why employers are monitoring social networking sites and sacking workers for posting potentially threatening material to protect their company’s reputation. That’s why employees need to develop some common sense about using social networking services.

The way people are complaining about this behaviour as a supposed “breach of privacy” seems thoughtless. Social media offer a public service and only offer pseudo privacy. You may still have the rights to your content with a site like Facebook; however, your information can be made public at any time without your permission. According to the Facebook terms of service, “If you disclose personal information in your profile…this information may become publicly available”. Geordie Guy, board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) agrees, “People put themselves at the behest of others when they put information on the internet for the world to see, it’s their responsibility”.

James Griffin, director of Sr7 that specialises in monitoring social networking sites for companies, says his work is about identifying and monitoring risks facing companies online. These risks could be an offensive comment, picture or video, infringements against a company’s logo, its trademarks, or other graphic representations.

I was shocked to read about the firing of a casual worker for a Queensland Government agency, Roseanna Brisbane for updating her Facebook status saying that in future she would be "saying no to working for shitty Government departments". "It is becoming the Soviet state type thing where you're scared of talking to someone in case they go and tell someone else," she told the Sydney Morning Herald. I accept that in some cases like these, companies are exceeding ethical boundaries for taking their posts out of context from what users may have felt was a private context to a professional context. “For companies to be behaving ethically, they are ordinarily considered to be behaving inside of both the law and the acceptable standards of conduct that people generally expect” said Guy.

One of the problems employers are facing with social media is what workplace lawyer, Steven Penning has told the Sydney Morning Herald that in some cases existing employee contracts are unlikely to cover staff use of social networking sites. In the future wouldn’t it seem more acceptable for companies to incorporate reasonable use of social networking sites into contracts?

It would be useful to see a commitment by social networking sites to educate their users about just how much of a public place the internet is. “EFA would like to see it more intuitive to have information regarding oneself removed from the public domain on a social networking site” said Guy. Some companies are already hot on their heels, with companies like Telstra and the Powerhouse Museum have begun to outline a clear understanding for employees on how to appropriately engage in social media. “We think it will result in a positive experience for both parties” says Griffin.

In this growing social media age, isn’t user caution a case of common sense?


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In the best of all Panglossian possible worlds

Alex Sidorov, sorry mate, for not getting back quicker.

Alex, responding to my comment:: "You say ethical behaviour can't be expected of bosses."

No. What I was trying to say was that you can't just presume people, including bosses, will always behave ethically. You can't presume to know situational outcomes before they have occurred.

Do all bosses behave "ethically", all the time? Maybe.

Don't doubt how "Orwellian" the world can be tho, if we are going to talk over things in those terms. I was naive once, also. I've seen plenty of people harmed by other people for wrong, perhaps even "evil", reasons, who you would have thought as innocent as new born lambs. 1984 has many readings, not just ideological ones. Mine could concern the gap between theory and practice in real world situations, or the role of reality in time and space in demonstrating human nature.

To an example of what I was trying to drive at in the earlier post. Only a few people a year are taken by sharks. But if I go swimming at a beach, I still have to consider the possibility, no matter how unlikely, that if I swim am doing so on an educated hunch rather than a certainty, as to my safety. I will have much less to complain about if I come back from my dip minus a leg, than say an English visitor, who knows nothing about Australia and sharks.

So it is with Facebook, emails, the internet, bosses and commenting on controversial subjects. That's what I honestly thought the thread was discussing.

A hard one to call

I think this is a hard one to call because it will be different in different situations. If someone has their profile set on public and they are friends with everyone they work with, it really is just stupid to say something negative about their work place online. If their profile is set to private, that's a whole other ball game.

At the same time, there is a line between your private life and your work life and for most people, their Facebook and Myspace profiles are part of their private life. If you say something negative about your work place to a friend, would it really be fair for your boss to fire you? So if you do the same thing on Facebook, should the treatment be different?

I think that the situation calls for common sense on both sides. It's not fair if an employer is snooping but if an employee knows what they say could get back to their employer, they have to be prepared to deal with the consequences if it does.

Every Webdiarist is a soldier

For a person working for the goverment posting a comment, say, that someday he/she will no longer be working for a shitty goverment agency is naturally inappropriate in relationship to her work.

A restaurant worker posting information on Facebook about how much he/she hates the customer is naturally inappropriate.

Why do you think so, Jui?

Our ancestors paid in blood for modern freedoms. There are still many countries where people are killed for what they say. We should not give our freedoms away too readily.

An employee has a contract with an employer about behaviour and performance in the workplace (including the use of information obtained in the workplace), but their time off work is in general none of the employer's business .

Bathing in a KFC tub is wrong. But mouthing off your employer after hours? Who really cares? Firing a female casual worker for it comes across as rank bullying, and evidence that what she said was right. A good employer would be more interested in finding out whether the allegations are true and fixing the problems. They'd be saying - 'Hey, this kid has pluck and intelligence. She may be worth mentoring'. The department should be named, and the Minister called to explain the matter in parliament. This is not the public service I'm paying my tax dollars to support (I'm making my judgements on the facts as stated - the truth may be quite different).

Paul is quite right, organisations often work in underhand ways. One could get onto an unofficial blacklist for even the most innocuous of comments. Every Webdiarist knows this - by our conversations we run some risk of jeopardising our current or future potential job.

On the other hand, we have a duty of citizenship. And citizenship is not just a matter of casting a vote every three years. Citizenship is fighting for a better country every day.

Thoughtless employees!

Hey Michelle, well said! I think that more and more employees using social networking sites in the wrong way. Social networking sites have even become dragnets as they are the latest way to sniff out criminals. What more can't they do? More people each year get caught thinking they can post anything they want not remembering their real names, photos and employer details are on the site(s).

I don't blame employers because work ethic is primary to them. I totally disagree with Roseanna's claim that ethical boundaries are being crossed. If she was working for the Obama government, all her interactions on networking sites would be monitored to maintain work ethic and security. Would she still think that ethical boundaries are crossed?

Quoting Mary Tyler Moore "Take chances, Make mistakes, That's how you grow". In this case, "That's how you fall".

This is really a grey area

I like your article, Michelle Webber.  You surely do have a pretty good point there but I won't necessary agree with it completely.

What are you talking about here is really a grey area, with no definite reason for yes or no.  There is a fine line between what an employer should fire an employee for and what is going too far.

For a person working for the goverment posting a comment, say, that someday he/she will no longer be working for a shitty goverment agency is naturally inappropriate in relationship to her work.

A restaurant worker posting information on Facebook about how much he/she hates the customer is naturally inappropriate.

But if a resturant worker was fired for posting a photo of themselves at a party that is going too far.

If a goverment worker was fired for posted a message saying he/she is going to run for MP him/her self some day, that is going too far.

The bottom line is that this is not a black and white area and it really varies with the jobs and the material that has been posted.

Privacy is a grey area

Michelle, this such a new issue, one that a lot of people are oblivious to. With the introduction of new technology and phenomena such as social networking sites, we seem to adopt first, and suffer the consequences later. I don't think a lot of people realise just how public their comments, status updates, and photo albums are. I think the incidences of people losing their jobs due to their online activities will definitely continue.

My experience with Facebook at work was mostly amusing - walking past countless desks on a Monday morning and seeing the same tell-tale window open, you couldn't help but chuckle at how widespread it has become. Personally, I made a point to never be "friends" with my boss because I thought it was inappropriate, but some of my other colleagues simply didn't care about our boss knowing what exactly they got up to on the weekend. I guess everyone has different levels of privacy that they like to maintain, so each to their own. I just hope that people are aware of just how public their information is!

It's common knowledge that companies and recruiters routinely Google their prospective employees, and often one of the first things that appears in the search result is the Facebook page. It may be deemed unethical, but it is happening and it's up to the individual to monitor what they broadcast. But then again, you can't always control what other people say or publish about you... 

As the lines between public and private become increasingly blurred online, I guess it's a case of share what you dare, and be respectful of other people.  

Some very interesting points

Michelle, you make some very interesting points in regards to the controversial issues relating to employers and social networking sites.

I believe there needs to be a balance of responsibility.

I don't think employers should be 'stalking' or snooping at employees profiles on Facebook or MySpace. As long as an employee is a valuable and good worker, what they enjoy doing outside of work should be allowed without judgment from colleagues.

However, there is no monitoring of employees snooping, so it is therefore the user's or employee’s responsibility and initiative to decide how much information they give away on their social site, and whether it’s a good idea to 'add' work colleagues as friends on Facebook for example. Updating one's status to 'is taking a sickie!' prob not the best idea!

Mind you, it wouldn't be very hard for an employer to gain access to this information if they really wanted to waste their own time.

Not much we can do

Norma, unfortunately it seems there really are only two ways of fixing this kind of problem - getting employers to stop snooping, or getting the social networking sites to increase their education for users in regards to privacy. My employer is quite vocal about the fact that he can access our gmail and hotmail accounts if we access them at work, and says if we have a problem with it we should quit. I suspect there are a lot of employers who feel similarly that they have a right to snoop if you're using their bandwidth.

Getting Facebook etc to educate their users more might be a more realistic solution, but it will take a whole lot of pressure from the public to actually make that happen. 

Until then, the safest thing to do is just to remember that the Internet is by nature open and accessible to everyone, so be very careful.


Michelle, "walls have ears". Especially in these increasingly technological times. Be just the tiniest bit circumspect who you talk with or to, where, and what about.

Do not automatically expect ethical behaviour from bosses and, particularly, don't think that employers will not seek recourse to changing technology when the feel their prerogatives are threatened or if they feel they can create a workplace more favourable to their imperatives, including surveillance allowing more control.

And as the Abu Ghraib and Kentucky Fried events proved, people really can be their own worst enemies – bad enough doing something offensive or really dumb, without magnifying it by producing the evidence that brings about their own downfall.

"Duh" doesn't get you far

Paul Walter, you may say "Duh", as if it's common knowledge, but people are still being fired because of publishing acts of stupidity online for everyone to see. 

Michelle Webber's article I believe is that employers regularly check publicly available sources of information, such as MySpace and Facebook, to source information about their employees. The potential uses for this information that they then have is to decide whether to hire, not to hire, dismiss, etc their employees. She also says that in certain instances it is ethical to do so, but in some other ones it is not. I completely agree with Michelle's discussion of the issue, because different situations are different and need individual approaches, so what may be ethical in some cases may not be in others.

Now back to your comment. You say that ethical behaviour can't be expected from bosses, as all they care is that their prerogatives are not threatened or that their imperatives are achieved. Now this point sounds like it has too much resonance to George Orwell's novel 1984. Of course bosses have their own interests, as do employees, as do all living creatures that populate this planet. I think that the most important thing is to find a good middle ground so that all parties are happy.

And in your final point you say that people do stupid thingsand then produce evidence that is accessible for their employees. Of course they do. People do all sorts of stupid things. But this is exactly what Michelle is saying in her article. That when people do things like that it can only be expected that they're targeting themselves to be potentially exposed by their employes. So in this point you make it sound like you're arguing with the article but that is exactly what the article is saying.

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