Facebook Privacy and the Enterprise: Are Employees Crossing the Line?

By | Aug 22, 2012

Imagine getting a pink slip from an employer after your boss checks out your Facebook profile and noticing you happen to "Like" something unpalatable to him or her. Seems a bit Orwellian and a violation of your Facebook privacy, doesn't it? Well, this purportedly happened recently to six sheriff's deputies employed by the Hampton Sheriff's Department, in the state of Virginia.

As reported in Yahoo News, the deputies accuse Sheriff B.J. Roberts of violating their First Amendment rights to free speech by firing them after warning them to stay off of his opponent's Facebook Page. They apparently did not heed his warning and not only visited the aforementioned fan page, but also "Liked" it. The six claim that Roberts fired them as retaliation after winning the election.

Sheriff Roberts claims the staff members were fired due to poor job performance and actions leading to disharmony and inefficiency in the office. Regardless of his real reasons, the wrongful termination case was thrown out by a U.S. District Judge, who ruled that Facebook "Likes" are not free speech protected by the Constitution.

While both Facebook and the ACLU are getting involved in the appeals process, expected to be heard in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the incident reinforces the need for IT professionals at midsize businesses to examine the issue from the perspective of both management — which understandably seeks to prevent public relations fiascos or the release of sensitive trade information — and employees who expect to be able to enjoy free speech on social networks without retaliation from their employers.

As another highly publicized social media privacy matter shows, this one involving employers demanding applicants' Facebook passwords as reported in Forbes, employers are running the risk of committing serious violations of privacy law, and even treading on the First Amendment through heavy-handed monitoring and control of the social media lives of their employees.

Midsize IT managers can ameliorate this challenge through intelligent policies and governance. For example, it is customary for many employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, so their language can be beefed up to include social networks specifically. Social media best practices should also be developed and released to workers, and trained-in as part of normal onboarding procedures.

At the same time, a conversation should take place with managers to assuage any fears they might have about social media and to stress that allowing more open communication has helped branding efforts for many companies. It is not unusual to see extremely successful companies allow and even encourage personal blogging from their staff — especially from tech-savvy companies like Microsoft and Google, which understand the value of an audience engaged through honest, direct dialogue with its employees.

Facebook privacy is a contentious and developing issue, one which IT personnel would be well-advised to follow to make sure their companies are intelligently protecting their reputations, while also allowing employees to exercise their right to express themselves.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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