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Facebook is a brand-new phenomenon. The public hasn't had time to master it yet, and the structure of Facebook itself is no help at all. As a result, people are posting things they later regret.
As one HR attorney recently pointed out, reading an employee's Facebook page is perfectly legal. At least here and now.
But legal or not, is it ethical for employers to read the Facebook posts of employees? I've been thinking a lot about this question recently, and I surprised even myself by concluding that I believe the answer is no.
First, let's take a look at what's going on out there.
Hundreds or thousands of employees have been caught lying to the boss thanks to Facebook. The most common lie appears to be calling in sick, followed by Facebook posts proving otherwise. We all know that employees have been falsely calling in sick since the "sick day" was invented. But Facebook can give employers a glimpse into our personal lives, and so some people are getting caught who otherwise wouldn't.
Other employees are getting fired not for lying, but for telling the wrong truth or even joking around.
A school administrator in Massachusetts named June Talvitie-Siple resigned after venting about both students and their parents on Facebook. She called students "germ bags" and parents "arrogant." Talvitie-Siple had failed to make her Facebook posts private using Facebook's confusing settings, so the posts were available for all to see.
A sociology professor at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania named Gloria Gadsden was fired for joking on Facebook about where she could hire a hitman. Later she wrote that she had a good day at school, and "didn't want to kill even one student," adding that "Friday was a different story." Gadsden's Facebook profile was totally locked down with privacy settings enabled. But the parent of a student, whom Gadsden had friended, notified the school of those comments.
Such remarks by school employees probably happen every day in casual conversation. Facebook feels like a semi-private space -- a kind of online teacher's lounge where only friends and colleagues can hear.
These are just a few examples, but the problem of Facebook affecting the workplace is large and growing.
Here's Why Facebook Should Be Fired
People are divided on the question of whether it's OK for employers to check the Facebook posts of employees or prospective employees. The majority, at least among my readers I've casually surveyed on the question, believe that Facebook posts are public, and therefore fair game for employers.
However, a Facebook post is not like a public blog post. Here's why.
Everyone has several social networks. We have our professional colleagues. That's one social network. We have our families. That's another. We have college buddies, extended family and others. The conversations for each of these social groups has always remained within the group.
Facebook is a unique and unprecedented space where -- because of Facebook's fundamental design flaw -- these separate social groups collide. (Yes, Facebook has settings for separating social groups, but they're too obscure to matter.)
In the Real World, we already have a good sense of what to do. People take steps to separate personal lives from work lives, and employers avoid entering into the private lives of employees.
That's essentially what's happening when employers snoop on Facebook profiles. They're doing so in order to secretly cross the personal-professional boundary and catch a glimpse of the otherwise forbidden realm of the employee's personal life. Employers are exploiting the employee's incompetence with Facebook settings to see what the employee didn't mean for them to see.
I think that's unethical.
Meanwhile, employees need to take steps with social networking activity comparable to what they do in the Real World.
Employees probably wouldn't post pictures in their cubicles or offices showing themselves drunk and shirtless. Friending co-workers and the boss with similar pictures posted on Facebook isn't a good idea, either, and for the same reason.
Another "gotcha" with Facebook and other social networks is the six-degrees-of-separation problem. Even if you don't friend a boss or coworker, the content of your posts can be copied and pasted and passed along. The more inappropriate and scandalous the more likely that is to happen.
The hundreds or thousands of people who have been fired, reprimanded or demoted for Facebook posts almost always say the same thing: They didn't know their messages could be read by people outside the intended group of "friends."
Yes, you could argue that Facebook posts are public, and therefore fair game. But the people posting them don't think of the posts as public.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently made headlines for telling the Wall Street Journal that he believes that in the future people will change their name as part of their passage into adulthood in order to "disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."
That's not going to happen. What will happen is that everyone will get wiser and Facebook and the other social networks will evolve user protections so these things happen less frequently. Google Orkut, for example, fixed this whole problem with sweeping changes to its social network.
In the meantime, Facebook should be fired from the workplace altogether.
Employers shouldn't friend and follow their employees for the purpose of crossing the boundary between personal and professional. That boundary should be respected on Facebook just as it is in the Real World.
And employees shouldn't talk about work or co-workers, and should be very careful about whom they friend and what they post.
Facebook is a murky, confusing gray area for many people. And that's why I believe it's unethical for employers to take advantage.