Facebook, Blogs, E-mail, You, and the Workplace

This post is a National Association of Colleges and Employers article. It can be found (along with other great articles) at JobWeb and is adapted from an article by George C. Hlavac, Esq., and Edward J. Easterly, Esq.in the March 2009 NACE Journal

The rules for use of technology change once you enter the job market—or take your first job. It’s important to know and understand them.

Screening Social Networking Sites
Where does an employer go to find out how you drink or what you like to do for fun? How about viewing pictures you might not want your parents to see, let alone the person who signs your paycheck? Look no further than social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace.

Social networks such as MySpace and Facebook have become the predominant avenue for individuals to display personality traits, interests, and even potential abilities, so some employers have begun looking to these sites as part of the job screening process. These web sites provide access to information that employers may not otherwise be privy to, and this information is free of charge. Because web sites such as MySpace and Facebook are free, access to the sites is rarely denied.

What is potentially more important to know is, the information obtained on these sites need not be disclosed to you—the prospective employee.

An employer may, either on its own or through its employees, search the Internet for your web persona prior to an interview and it isn’t required to disclose the search or the information obtained or that it was considered in the selection process. As a result, you may never know if the picture from last week’s party, the fact that you enjoy computer hacking, or a comment left by a friend ruined your chances of obtaining a dream job.

Your social networking site page also may list your age, gender, hobbies, race, religion, and place of birth. As a result, a potential employer obtain information regarding your heritage, religious background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political ideals. Comments on an individual’s site, such as “congratulations on the pregnancy,” which appear innocent when posted, could be used by an employer to screen out an applicant for a discriminatory reason.

You can also benefit from using online social networks—in a proper fashion: Set up your page to make a positive impression on potential employers. A Facebook page, for example, can be an extension of your resume and provide insight into your personality, work ethic, and interests. An employer can use this information to develop a connection with you prior to the interview process or gain valuable information left out during the interview. If you shares a common hobby or interest with the recruiter, it may provide you with an “in” that you might not have otherwise had.

You also may use these sites to network with potential employers or gain information on an employer prior to an interview. Generally, these sites list an individual’s current employer. Prior to applying for an interview, you can search these sites to find other individuals who are employed by the potential employer. The applicant could use these individuals as a resource for information that might be otherwise unavailable.

Additionally, once you obtain employment, be careful not to use the Internet in an inappropriate or unprofessional manner. Employees who post provocative pictures or comments on their web page may be subject to termination. (Look no further than the former mayor of Arlington, Oregon, who was removed from her position in February 2008 for posting racy pictures on her MySpace page.)

Blogs, Blogs, Blogs…
Blogging becomes an issue when you blog about the workplace or place material on your blog that your employer deems inappropriate. There have been cases where employees have been terminated for posting inappropriate comments and/or photographs on blogs. Such actions are viewed by many employers as harmful to the interests of the company, thereby necessitating the termination of the blogging employee.

How can an employee be terminated for merely publishing his or her ideas on the Internet outside of the work environment? You must remember that by and large they don’t have the right to say whatever they want in a private employment relationship. This is largely due to the fact that private sector employees have no First Amendment rights to freedom of speech in the workplace. Equally important is the fact that most employees are employed on an at-will basis. This means that unless there is an express agreement otherwise, an employer can terminate you at any time for any reason (provided that it is not discriminatory or in violation of public policy).

In this regard, as a general matter, blogging is not protected under a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. As such, when an you blog that “I hate my place of employment” or post pictures of Apple computers being delivered to Microsoft facilities, an employer can deem these actions contrary to its interests and terminate you without fear of liability. (Note: Both of these aforementioned incidents actually happened and led to the termination of the employees.)

Your employer may have a blogging policy that clearly establish the parameters within which blogging will be permitted. For example, you may not be aware of what constitutes copyright infringement or confidential information that should not be included on a blog. You may not know you’re your employer monitors employees’ blogs, and pursuant to the terms of their policy, may want to consider requiring you to disclose any personal blogs as a condition of employment.

Misuse of E-mail and Internet Privileges
Employee abuse and misuse of e-mail and Internet privileges at work can result in significant monetary liability to employers.

While you may mistakenly believe that what you do on your work computer is private, generally you have no privacy rights with respect to your work e-mail account or any use of an employer-provided computer. Your employer may have a “responsible use” policy with respect to employee e-mail and Internet activities. Most of these policies establish that all e-mail and Internet use is to be work-related and will be monitored by the employer.

For example, in a recent case, an employee used his employer’s e-mail system to send confidential information to one of the employer’s direct competitors prior to taking a job with the competitor. These e-mails were ultimately used as evidence of the employee’s illegal activities. In other cases, employers have used web usage histories and/or inappropriate e-mails to justify employee terminations.

Check-out JobWeb for more great job searching resources.

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