Social media is inescapable these days. And it’s created a whole new world that employers and employees have to navigate. A simple Google search can pull up all kinds of information about a person, everything from their age to their Facebook page. A deeper delve can offer a look into their private life, whether through photos of their kids playing soccer or political rants posted on Twitter.
Yes, it can be a helpful tool for employers to weed out folks involved in unsavory or criminal activity. But knowing more intimate details about someone’s personal life can also lead to questions or unintended consequences in the workplace that businesses didn’t have to deal with in the past.
“That line of private and public is becoming very blurry,” says Eric Dent, the Uncommon Friends Endowed Chair of Ethics in the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University.
So what’s an employer to do with all this easily accessible information at his or her fingertips? And how much should an employee’s private life impact his or her professional life? Dent offers his advice on some common quandaries.
Tread carefully during the hiring process. Federal employment and antidiscrimination laws protect employees from being discriminated against based on things like their age, race, religion or gender. While some of those factors may not be immediately obvious based on just a résumé, employers often look beyond that these days. “Suddenly all that information is available if someone has a Facebook page,” Dent says. “There have been cases where an employee has alleged they did not receive a job because an employer had access to that information.”
Watch out for gray areas. Social media searching can lead to all kinds of ethical questions for employers during the hiring process that fall outside the realm of federal protections. “If someone has gone through an extensive battle with cancer, it could cause an employer to wonder about their overall health and how long someone might be in a job,” Dent says. He adds that some companies have tried to separate the person who does the cyber-vetting from the people actually involved in employment decisions. But it’s unclear how effective or realistic that truly is.
Don’t believe everything you see. Sure, that Instagram account could provide a realistic glimpse of an employee’s or prospective hire’s life. But false information is also far too common online these days. “If an employer goes out on their own to look for information about an employee, they really need to be able to somehow validate the accuracy of that information,” Dent says. “Because they’re not really guaranteed that any of that information is accurate.”
Know the boundaries. For employees, be careful what you Tweet or post from a workplace computer. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that employers can monitor what you’re doing on a work computer,” Dent says. “The employer has access to anything you do on that computer at work. And the court cases have been fairly clear that even if you are using your own device, if you’re doing it on work time employers are likely going to be able to access that information.”
Have clear workplace policies in place. Written rules and regulations help employees understand their company’s social media do’s and don’ts and back up employers’ disciplinary decisions. “If there are organizational policies in place and employees violate them outside of work or on social media, they can be terminated,” Dent says. Violations of company rules could be things like calling in sick and then posting a photo of yourself at the beach on Facebook, or revealing confidential information about your employer through social media. “People have also been fired for complaining or threatening customers through social media,” Dent says.
Make clear the public expectations of any position. Can you be easily identified outside of work as representing your employer? Then you might not have as much freedom with what you say and do online (and in the real world). “If they have good policies in place, the courts have ruled mostly in favor of employers about off-duty activity and behavior that an employer’s business concerns outweigh an employee’s privacy concerns,” Dent says.
Folks working in law enforcement, for example, are expected to behave pretty much the same off-duty as when they’re on-duty. “Their job depends upon maintaining community respect and confidence,” Dent says. “Any conduct that detracts from the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system is a problem in law enforcement.”