Employee Privacy: Where Should Companies Draw the Line?

Sue Marquette Poremba
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Eight Tips for Creating a Social Media Policy

A list of points that you should consider while crafting your company's social media policy.

By now, you've probably heard or read about the woman who was fired for posting negative comments on her Facebook page about her boss-after work hours and supposedly using her own computer. The company claims they had the right to fire her because of a policy that stated that employees were forbidden from posting any business-related information on social media sites.


The story is not the only one involving employees punished or fired because of what they posted on their personal sites. And let's be honest: As more people use social media, the risks of personal opinion about the job will come up, especially among those who have spent all of their lives posting every thought online.


The real issue, as I see it, is where enterprise draws the line of employee privacy. At what point is the employee separate from the private citizen?


It's an issue without an easy answer, particularly if the company does have a policy about what can and cannot be written about the business or its staff. But at what point does the enterprise go too far?


On the Center for Investigative Reporting site, a blog post asks the question, "Is your boss spying off the clock?" The post points out a company designed to spy on the social media sites employees use, and how companies will mine sites specifically to find anything that projects a negative corporate image. Where things get really fuzzy is these companies don't just search for business information, but for any negative tidbits on employees (or potential employees). (I think it is important to note that the government also utilizes these snooping companies, to find potential threats to the national security, although some departments or individuals go too far.)


So, should businesses have the right to spy on employees or censor what they say outside of the company? And what is considered protected information? Revealing the secret recipe for Coke on a personal Twitter account should likely be off limits. But what about complaining about the 4 hours wasted in a staff meeting? If an employee can gripe about a boss over drinks in a neighborhood bar, why can't those same gripes be aired on a Facebook page that can (supposedly) only be read by the employee's friend network?

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Jan 30, 2012 4:32 AM Dave Dave  says:

I just wanted to say thank you for posting this, it made me think.I work in IT, not in HR, and most of the HR policies I've seen or have dealt with in this area are regarding the use of work equipment for personal use, such as personal emails or inappropriate website access on work IT equipment, indicating unproductive or inefficient staff.This problem doesn't concern the use of work equipment, only employees who are discussing their work environment and experience.This throws up several ethical issues for me.

The first and most obvious one is privacy.Does an employer have the right to monitor employee activity outside office hours?All an employer is technically paying for is labour and expertise.An employer would not have an automatic right to listen in to a private conversation, even on work premises;should they have a right to listen to a conversation outside office hours, however public, and take action on the consequences?I suspect that many companies would state that an employee is a company representative at all times;many employers actually leverage their employees' social networks and request them to advocate for the company to friends and family outside office hours without payment.Following this paradigm the company may then have a right to expect that an employee will "speak no evil" of fellow employees, the company and customers at all times.

The issue as you note, is one of harm.An employee is a person, with rights to free thought and free expression.However the law has always recognised limits to free expression;posting company secrets is not protected speech.A utilitarian ethicist might argue that the harm involved to fellow employees' livelihoods outweighs the happiness of free expression in this instance.The same argument on a much larger and more critical scale obviously also applies to national security concerns.

Given that revealing company or national secrets is beyond the pale, can a company expect complete loyalty, even in private speech, by employees?I would argue not;again, an employer/employee relationship is or should be about paid labour, and this is certainly how an employer would characterise the relationship when taking an action which may potentially harm employees, such as restructuring or downsizing the organisation.However this may be one of the situations where ethics and morality diverge;as noted by Stephen Pinker, loyalty to one's community and respect for authority are two moral imperatives which appear universally in all human cultures, along with imperatives of purity, fairness and avoiding harm.Badmouthing one's employer, customers or fellow employees may be ethically and legally justifiable free speech, but violates moral codes of loyalty to one's community (company) and authority (employer.)

A Kantian ethicist would require both parties to consider each other as an end and not a means.The employer should consider the employee as an end and not merely as a means to extending the company brand among potential customers while performing useful business functions.The employee should consider the employer an end and not merely a means to learn new skills and pay the rent.However it is difficult to formulate a Kantian universal law here;if an employee cannot criticise an employer publicly, is it not hypocritical for an employer to provide an employee a bad reference to other employers?Should the universal law be that neither employees nor employers are permitted to discuss their interactions where they may be seen or heard by others?

For me, the question comes down to an expectation of which is greater; Reply

Jan 30, 2012 4:32 AM Dave Dave  says:
society or business.Business exists to serve the needs of society;society does not exist to serve the needs of business.Western society is changing to adapt to quickly evolving social network technologies.Tension between established business behaviour norms and the new social paradigms are inevitable, albeit predictable;a business features a social fabric, and is composed of individuals who must relate to each other as humans as well as fellow professionals.Disrespect or an insult will be perceived as such, and will have an impact on that social fabric, whether the insult is delivered over the water cooler or over Facebook.But unless actual and demonstrable harm is involved to a company, not merely reputational harm, I believe it is business which must accommodate our wider society's changing behaviours and expectations and not vice-versa.


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