Should employers conduct online searches of job applicants? That’s one of the questions I’m asked most often by employers when talking about social media. One of the less commonly asked questions is whether employers should conduct the same type of online search after the hiring decision has been made. In other words, should employers monitor their employees’ online activities during employment?
There are good arguments for and against this practice. For me, the most persuasive argument is logistics–it just doesn’t seem realistic for most employers to dedicate the resources required to monitor employees’ online habits. But here’s a recent story that shows why employers may want to run a search of current employees on Google.
Inc.com reported the story about a single mother in St. Louis who, during the day, worked for a non-profit. At night, though, she wrote an anonymous “sex blog” called “The Beautiful Kind.” She’d managed to keep her online identity a secret until Twitter came along.
When she created her Twitter profile, she used her real name, thinking that only her handle would be visible. When she realized that her name actually appeared in her profile, she immediately removed it and adjusted the name field of her handle accordingly. Immediately, however, was not quickly enough.
Thanks to Topsy, a Twitter search engine, her original profile was cached and her real name was displayed next to her user handle. According to the blogger, senior management suggested that supervisors search the web for information about their employees. When the blogger reported to work, she was fired by her boss, who had found out about her extracurricular “activities” on Topsy. The nonprofit claimed that it could not justify the risk to its public image caused by an employee’s racy blog.
The interesting point to this story, aside from the idea of supervisors being encouraged by senior management to spend time surfing the web, is that the employee was terminated as a result of conduct that did not involve her job. She was blogging during nonworking time on a computer not owned by her employer or connected to her employer’s network. In some states, where off-duty conduct is protected to varying degrees, the termination may be unlawful. But, in Missouri, which does not have any laws offering such protection to employees, it would appear that the termination is entirely lawful.
And, if nothing else, this story is an excellent example of the principle that, if you put it on the Internet, you’d better assume that your boss is going to see it and is going to hold you accountable.
See these related posts for more about the impact of social media on employers and employees: