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Facebook and the boss

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.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic built its brand as an airline staffed by a young, cheeky, and cute crew who love to have a fun time flying with you. So it was a bit of a publicity blip when the airline had to fire 13 staff in November 2008 after they were caught bitching about passengers – and the airline’s safety procedures – on Facebook.

The Facebook group was quickly yanked off the web, but the brand damage was done and the case made the news around the world. From a PR perspective, it was a nightmare: how do you spin “our staff calls you ‘chavs’ behind your back”?

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

Not that this is a particularly 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 center 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.
The overlap of personal information with our public internet face is now the norm. Workers and bosses need to figure out how to deal with it the best way they can.

Facebook is rapidly becoming part of the work landscape in Australia. Aussies make up 3.5 million of the 120 million Facebook users worldwide. And we’re spending twice as much time on Facebook now than we did in 2007, averaging around 34 minutes per Facebook session, according to internet research firm Hitwise.

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?

Rein in that impulse, says author and career advice columnist Penelope Trunk. Snooping on an employee’s Facebook page is about as creepy – and unproductive – as eavesdropping at the pub, says the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success.

“Facebook is like a bar,” she explains. “Lewd behavior, racy conversations, and hyper-social. Why would you go to a place like this to check on your employees?

“What people do at a party is not relevant to what they do at work. This is good news since most employers have had stints in their lives as party animals.

“If you are checking resumes by going to Facebook, you need to get some more relevant skills for vetting employees.”

However, Trunk doesn’t dismiss the internet as a source of valuable insight into current or potential employees.

“People generally blog about topics related to their career,” she says. “This is why checking out potential employees by reading their blog is a good thing to do. You should hire people for their passion and ideas, and blogs give you an accurate read on that.”
If 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.

Recruitment consultants may use social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to identify potential candidates, she says. Indeed, LaVolta’s search methodology includes scouring external databases such as LinkedIn for talent. However, Mills believes executive-level recruitment agencies are likely to continue to rely on their own databases for potential candidates.

Employers could well look at a candidate’s Facebook profile during the recruitment process, Mills says. “We don’t suggest it, but it’s probably something that’s not far away.”

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.

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

When it comes to her own business, Mills says LaVolta’s focus on technology professionals means the business, by its nature, is immersed in the online world. “We’re happy for all our guys to be on Facebook and LinkedIn,” she explains. “You have to trust your employees.”

Recruitment tool?

Human resources and recruitment professionals tend to be concerned with productivity and security issues around Facebook rather than viewing it as a recruitment tool.

“Facebook is still seen by many as a place that kids hang out, but this is changing,” says human resources technology and social networking consultant Michael Specht.

“LinkedIn and LinkMe are becoming very popular for agency recruiters, but not so much for corporate recruiters yet.”

However, some agencies are not using these tools very well.

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