Thursday, September 14, 2006

When it rains it pours: More on social networking sites today

NBC4 in Washington DC had another report on employers and social networking sites tonight (9/14). It reported a site, ("bear foot"?) that has been keeping track of this issue, and the site had several more reports of firings for personal blogs, either because of talking about the workplace or conflict of interest. The report also mentioned that some federal agencies were, under the Patriot Act, bypassing facebook privacy settings to see facebook profiles of applicants even when the applicants had not intended them to be "global." The report related the story of one college student who wrote a spoof or satire about resume falsification online, and found no recruiters would call him. When he removed the profile, they started calling.

The July-September 2006 issue of SHRM Staffing Management contains an article by Steve Taylor: "Seeking Secrets in Cyberspace: To surf or not to surf when checking candidates: that can be the question." The article goes on to examine the practicality an ethics of this kind of "background examination." It is possible to get a misleading impression; the NBC4 report tonight concluded with a remark that sites like myspace and facebook had been intended for social networking, not job applications or, for that matter, political activism or literary publication; employers should bear this in mind.

SHRM also sells a book "Blog Rules" by Nancy Field. The book discusses the legal implications of corporate blogging and the indirect effect that personal blogging by employees can have on employers. It does mention firings and pre-screening of employees.

One theme comes up repeatedly, I've noticed. Employers seem particularly concerned about self-defamation, which is often done on the Internet in profiles and personal sites, to be intended as parody, satire, or a political protest. The writer may believe he/she is right morally and have an intellectual justification for personal content, but employers may, out of context, be very concerned about the effect on customers or clients should they find the same content by search engines. Legally, there can be indirect consequences, too. The writer is giving the public the legal warrant to believe and reprint false statements about him/her. This could lead to legal problems with intention, propensity, enticement, and the like. This problem is only now beginning to be understood; probably two years ago no one had thought about it.

The logical temptation is for companies to be formed to specialize in doing "background investigations" based on social networking profiles and personal blogs. I worry that what started as a vehicle for freedom of speech can be turned upsidedown into a test of social conformity. Freedom of speech can ride in reverse, too. Already, there are companies that promise to "manage" professional online profiles.


Easton Ellsworth said...

"The writer is giving the public the legal warrant to believe and reprint false statements about him/her." Wowsers - I hadn't thought of it that way. Thanks for putting this issue into a new context for me.

Bill Boushka said...

Thanks for the comment. It seems that employers may fear that if they hire someone who has practiced "self defamation" even as a "legitimate political argument" (like about gender roles, etc) they could face liability issues later if the employee gets involved in some kind of incident or is the target of an accusation, even unfounded. An employee might have a harder time defending himself.