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Facebook Got Me Fired

Such sites a double-edged sword for employers, workers

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With an increasing number of employees on social networking sites like Facebook, companies are scrambling to develop appropriate policies for off-duty online behavior. Photo by Spencer E Holtaway

In October 2007, Kevin Colvin, an intern at the New York branch of the Anglo Irish Bank, asked his supervisor for time off for a family emergency. It happened to be Halloween. That night, a picture of Colvin dressed in a fairy costume surfaced on Facebook. He was promptly dismissed.

“He must have been Facebook friends with someone he worked with, because the picture made its way to his boss, who wrote him an email that said, ‘I hope everything is OK. Cool wand,’” says Kabrina Chang, a School of Management assistant professor of business law and employment law.

Chang (CAS’92), whose research into the legal issues surrounding off-duty social media behavior was published in the spring 2011 issue of the North Atlantic Regional Business Law Association’s Business Law Review, says that 72 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds have a Facebook page, and 40 percent of those over 40 have a profile. While the Colvin case was ultimately one of deception, “it got me wondering how big the problem is with people who post things on Facebook that could be harmful to a business’ reputation,” Chang says. “I found some cases, but there aren’t that many.”

Chang says 85 percent of businesses have no policies for governing employee online behavior.

In another case, she says, a server at a restaurant had set up a MySpace page to vent about work. He’d invited only other coworkers, past and present. The discussions became infused with sexual comments about customers and other employees and with references to violence and drug use. It wasn’t long before the restaurant bosses got wind of it; they found the remarks hurtful and harassing to other employees, as well as a bad reflection on the restaurant. The server was fired. He sued for invasion of privacy and violation of the Stored Communications Act, which protects communication that lives on a website, for example. The courts sided with him on the latter grounds.

“A woman who was invited by the MySpace site administrator showed her manager the page,” Chang explains. “The managers said the invited woman gave up the password voluntarily. But she testified that she didn’t feel she could have said no, because it was her boss. So they didn’t have authorized access. Had they had authorized access, I don’t think it would have been a problem firing him for it.”

Chang recently presented her social media research at a faculty symposium at SMG. BU Today caught up with her to ask what workers and bosses need to keep in mind when it comes to activity on online networking sites.

BU Today: Is social media creating an atmosphere where our private lives will increasingly fall under the purview of our employers?
Chang: Well, there’s one case, which is not an employment case, but speaks volumes about the embarrassment and unprofessional conduct of employees online and why businesses are worried about it. A woman got expelled from the nursing program at the University of Louisville. She was to follow a woman through labor and delivery, and she blogged about it. The blog was colorful, full of vulgarities and crass descriptions. Again, one of the other students saw it and told the instructor, who then showed it to the dean. They expelled her, saying she violated the code of professional conduct in the school of nursing. The court said she really didn’t. She didn’t use any identifying information, nothing linking her to the school. Plus, it was directed to the general world and not a specific audience. The fact that it was crude and vulgar contributed to it being nonprofessional instead of unprofessional, and her expulsion was overturned.

How are companies crafting policies for online behavior?
Companies pay a lot of money for marketing and recruiting online, but very few have policies dictating employee online behavior. They never really considered it a problem, but more companies are becoming concerned. Legally, employers probably have more rights than they think they do, but from a management perspective, I think they might be less willing to be overbearing and Big Brotherish. It’s a very delicate topic, because it might put a real damper on morale.

What’s the difference between bad-mouthing your company at a dinner party and on Facebook? Is it that the comments live on?
Exactly. It’s permanent.

If computers are provided by employers, does that make everything fair game, at any time, even something like your personal Gmail account?
It does. Employees should recognize that if they’re using an office computer at work or off duty. There’s a really interesting case with the Philadelphia Police Department that’s not resolved, but percolating. There’s a sergeant who started a website called domelights.com, dedicated to talking about law enforcement issues. Over time, the Guardian Civic League argues, there was a lot of racial harassment, derogatory remarks, the encouraging of racial profiling. Officers posted at home and at work, and they talked about it at work. The plaintiffs are suing the Philadelphia Police Department for allowing a racially hostile environment to exist at work based on what was going on online.

What’s your advice for employers?
Employers would be prudent in addressing the issue with employees in writing and in training seminars and handbooks, but not be overbearing, because that really sends a message to employees that you probably don’t want to send. On the other hand, there are cases out there that impose liability on employers for what happens online: for example, sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can happen in the office, at an off-site holiday party, and it can happen online.

There was a case where some airline pilots had a forum online. A bunch of comments were made about another pilot, and she sued for sexual harassment, among a host of conducts. The court said the statements made online can be imputed to the employer as harassing comments. So employers have to address this because they stand to be exposed to risk. The real difficulty is how zealous are you going to be. How companies are going to pay attention to it depends on the culture of the office.

What should workers consider when they’re online?
Don’t put anything on your Facebook page you wouldn’t want your employer to see. I caution my students, too, when they’re looking for jobs, to clean up their Facebook pages.

Setting your privacy controls to the strictest level isn’t enough?
In the nursing student case, the MySpace case, and another case involving a blog, someone tattled on them, someone who was authorized showed their higher-ups. My students have reported back to me that some employers have someone who cruises social networking sites trying to find information, through a mutual Facebook friend, for example. Another way an employer can gain access is through university and high school affiliations. One student, during an interview, was asked to log onto his Facebook page. Another woman was hired by a company that required that she friend the company when she changed her employment status, which gave them access.

Should current employees be worried that their bosses are cruising their social networking profiles?
For existing employees, some companies have started to, based on my research, but it’s not as aggressive as for applicants. I think if there were a disgruntled employee, they’d be smart to see what’s going on. But it’s more a case-by-case basis.

Do you foresee clear-cut online policies emerging anytime soon?
I don’t think we’ll ever arrive at a clear-cut way of handling the issue. I think there will be enough lawsuits that both parties will become more wise and prudent. The big issue for employers is access. If an employer can find a way to get legitimate access, it’s fair game so far. The one wrinkle is with union employees and concerted activity. That’s one area where there hasn’t been a court decision yet, where employees might have a protection, but it’s such a narrow exception.

What is concerted activity?
Concerted activity is talking about terms or conditions of work with other people from work. If you’re complaining about your boss online and several coworkers comment on your post, that chain of activity could be protected. You can’t be fired or disciplined at work. There are exceptions—if it’s defamatory or malicious. But in the majority of the cases, the question isn’t whether your posts are protected, but how did your boss get access to them.

Does BU have an online behavior policy?
We don’t, but there’s a draft. It’s in the works in the general counsel’s office.

 

15 Comments

15 Comments on Facebook Got Me Fired

  • Churk on 07.18.2011 at 6:31 am

    It's self control.

    I think companies has every right to say you can not do this otherwise you can not be part of this organization. Taking the perspective of your body. If you are sitting next to someone, and you hand and fingers inappropriately touch the person next to you. That person is not going to say, I am sorry but I am suing your fingers, that person is going to sue you. So just like an organization, what you do reflects upon them. So anything that can leave a trail, such as blogs, and social media. These things lives on while you don’t think about it. And it is like putting up a poster on city hall and never take it down.

    Not just organization, but what about your family. If you post inappropriate things on the internet. What if your old neighbor that still live next to your family think of your parents? Wouldn’t the neighbor think your parents did not teach you manners and self control adequately?

  • Tom on 07.18.2011 at 7:04 am

    It sounds like Colvin lied to his boss and was dumb enough to post proof of his lie on facebook. If you are “friends” with people at work why you would do that?

  • Anonymous on 07.18.2011 at 7:37 am

    “Does BU have an online behavior policy? We don’t, but there’s a draft. It’s in the works in the general counsel’s office.”

    I certainly hope this is an extremely limited document, focused on harassment and bullying, rather than “professional conduct.” The University does a great job of not interfering with the online activities of it’s Faculty, Staff and Students, and it would be a shame for it to take different direction.

  • Anonymous on 07.18.2011 at 8:45 am

    Facebook didn’t get you fired, you got caught in a lie and got yourself fired.

  • Anonymous on 07.18.2011 at 9:36 am

    I’m glad to hear that BU is working on an on-line behavior policy. I think it should be incorporated into the new hire orientation. Also, there should be a way to educate the older generations of employees about netiquette who have not grown up using the Internet. I had an issue last year where a male new hire in his 50′s or 60′s contacted me via Facebook. When I brought up my concern to my 59 year old boss, she didn’t understand what the issue was.

    • karol on 08.31.2011 at 12:15 pm

      I believe there is a mention of a computer code of conduct during this new hire orientation.

  • Anonymous on 07.18.2011 at 11:17 am

    Is BU Writing the Rules

    so that they can fire any university employee who publicly disagrees with the polices of Barack Obama? Would they like to rescind my degree while they’re at it?

  • Anonymous on 07.18.2011 at 1:14 pm

    re:

    Colvin probably did not put the pics up himself. His friends did w/o realizing he lied to his boss or the repercussions of their actions.

    What’s wrong with a “male new hire in his 50′s or 60′s” contacting you via facebook? What if a younger female did? People have different criteria for making facebook friends.

  • Anonymous on 07.18.2011 at 1:31 pm

    Just because someone’s phone number is listed in a phone book doesn’t mean they want to receive a random call from a co-worker. Just because someone has a Facebook profile doesn’t mean the person wants to be friended by co-workers.

  • Anonymous on 07.18.2011 at 3:23 pm

    “Facebook didn’t get you fired, you got caught in a lie and got yourself fired.”

    Exactly correct.

  • karol on 08.31.2011 at 12:14 pm

    “What’s the difference between bad-mouthing your company at a dinner party and on Facebook? Is it that the comments live on?
    Exactly. It’s permanent.”

    Not true. Comments online can be deleted. Nothing’s permanent.

  • Anonymous on 11.17.2011 at 6:45 pm

    I was just fired today after nearly 6 1/2 yrs of employment with a company based on a post I made on my page about how my boss was acting towards employees and making me feel. Not once did I mention her name or the name of the company. I have never been written up for anything and there was no discussion. I walked in, got told to turn in my keys and when I asked what I did wrong I was shown a copy of my post that had been printed up and asked if I thought it would go unseen. I pointed out that it was freedom of speech and that neither her nor the person who printed it up were friends of mine and that they had stalked me through someone else’s page to obtain it she quote a line from the post to me and informed me that it was insubordination and that I had undermined her to other employees. There has never been any discussion or rules set forth about what we can and cannot do in our own homes on our own computers on our free time.

  • Acces Denied!!! on 03.20.2012 at 9:47 pm

    No do not think hat employers or school officials have any right to see what going on in your social networking profiles. I do not need my boss or college official snooping in any of my social networks, checking put what I am doing, or talking about between “my friends and family”, that is none of their concern. If anything they are looking to see how busy you, if you already have a handful they don’t want to hire you, you’re already too busy. Letting the boos and school official on to my social network is like inviting them into my home, letting them look around for a bit, the movies I like to watch, the food I like to eat. Personal life is separate from work life. How on handles situations at home may be different from work or school.
    Remember the time when none of this technology was even out. We went around talking openly to each other about things we liked or didn’t, we talk behind others back, because that’s what people did. Is it Consequence now because what we say can be proven right or wrong? What if one of my social networks got jacked, someone else was controlling my everyday life. Am I still at fault? I might as well bring my diary so they could read it.

  • tatijana on 07.31.2012 at 2:49 am

    I was fired for posting the following statements on facebook” your boss can make or break you”, ” we live in a cruel world,a work were two face and backstabbers are all over the show ” and ” lord grant me the serenity to accept other people’s kak moods and backstabbing . Give me the wisdom to focus on why my company appointed me”. I don’t have my company listed on my profile and also have private settings . After 14 yrs with the company I was fired for Gross Misconduct that I make defamatory remarks of my boss, my colleagues and my company. I didn’t mentioned any names but the company argues that because I have work colleagues on my account they can make a clear connection at what company I’m working. I’m fighting it further at the arbitration court.

  • Anon. on 03.24.2013 at 7:19 pm

    I posted a comment on my fb a few weeks ago when I found out my work were changing the pay system, and I didn’t agree with it. It was sort of a rant but I didn’t mention the company name or any employees/my boss’s name. My boss now knows about the post because someone has shown him it (a co worker) and he wants to ‘have a word about it’. I don’t want to lose my job and I’m actually scared of having this talk because I am intimidated by him. The rant wasn’t soley about work. It included other things from my day to day life and how it’s adding to my frustrations, and the issue with work was just one frustration. Judging by this, what could happen in terms of my position at work? Can he sack me?

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