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Does Facebook belong in the workplace?

Like it or not, social networking sites are part of the workplace. But is it ethical to use Facebook to check up on staff or vet potential hires? Sarah Stokely finds out.

Welcome to the employer’s dilemma that is Facebook. Productivity issues aside, you might not care if your employees are sharing updates about their lives or photos of their cats online. But when that information is about your business, things can get seriously sticky.

Social networks and the workplace

Work-related social networking gossip is not a new problem. American web designer Heather Armstrong gave birth to the term ‘getting Dooced’ in 2002 when she became one of the first people to be fired for writing about her colleagues on her blog, Dooced.

Seven years later, it seems a lot of people are still putting their jobs at risk by sharing information about work online. The rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, which combines personal status updates and professional networking, has dissolved the boundaries between our work and personal lives.

Closer to home, in October 2008 Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a story about a call centre employee getting sprung skipping work to nurse a hangover when his boss checked out his, you guessed it, Facebook profile. The Tele based its story on an email exchange that had been doing the rounds of Sydney offices, in which employee Kyle Doyle tried to claim a sick day, only to be rebuffed by the boss. Doyle challenged his employer to prove the sick day was not legitimate and received in response a screenshot of his status update on Facebook: “Kyle Doyle is not going to work, f**k it I’m still trashed. SICKIE WOO!”

Perhaps the most striking thing about Kyle Doyle’s Facebook message is not how stupid it was, but how normal. Day-to-day updates and complaints – about hangovers, annoying colleagues, flat tires, and missed trains are par for the course on Facebook.

Facebook sleuthing

In the internet age, where information about just about anything (or anyone) is just a few keystrokes away, you can check up on employees or vet a prospective hire as easy as you can compare prices on shoes or look for an online date. If you’re about to hire someone and give them the keys to your business, wouldn’t you want to check them out on Google or check their Facebook page? And, given the tools for checking up on people are there and are so easy to use, isn’t it inevitable they will become part of the recruitment process?

Perhaps, but clients aren’t asking for it yet, according to Sally Mills, CEO of LaVolta Consulting, a recruitment agency that specializes in executive recruitment for the digital interactive industry.

“We suggest taking a bit of everything as a way of making your recruiting decisions, rather than relying on just one source,” she says.

Mills advocates stringent reference checking during recruitment, but she warns against relying too heavily on Facebook profiles or other third-party sites. The information may be out of date or, in some extreme cases, people may have lost control of their accounts.

To ban or not to ban

When you read stories about people like Kevin Colvin, who got fired from his job as an intern at Anglo Irish Bank after he took a day off work and then turned up on Facebook in a tasteful Halloween party pic dressed as a fairy (Google him, the picture is worth it), you could be excused for wanting it as far away from your business as possible.

Management of internet usage at work is not just a question of banning Facebook and forgetting about it. In fact, an outright ban can lead to further problems. In April 2008, Deacons published the results of a social networking survey, which found that almost half of those who used social networking sites at work said that if given a choice between two jobs that were equal in all other respects, they would choose an employer that allowed access to these sites over one that did not.

Just deal with it

Social networking sites are part of work-life now, so employers just have to adapt, says author and career advice specialist Penelope Trunk.

“If you try to control employee use of social networking sites, they will just use the sites behind your back. If you block the sites at your office, young employees will quit or go to the hallway to use their iPhones. Your employees could waste endless time talking on the telephone, but you wouldn’t dream of banning phones at the office.”

Set the standard for acceptable use of social networking sites just as you do for internet usage, says Specht.

“It is best to be proactive before you need to discipline someone for not understanding that these tools fall under the same guidelines as general internet usage.

“The benchmark that you should use when reviewing the information found online is, does the information add to or decrease the candidate as a quality hire? If not then the information is irrelevant. Because your Gen Y candidate likes to party on the weekend does not necessarily make them a bad hire, in fact, it could mean they have a good approach to work-life balance!”Read the full article here.

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