Social networking sites – research tool or just a way to snoop?

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

Social networking sites on the Internet such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are all the rage, to the point where it’s hard to find somebody who isn’t “linked in” to one of these services. There are sites geared to interaction for business purposes as well as purely social sites, but one thing is for sure: These sites make it a lot easier to find out information about people and know what they’re up to.

Naturally, this “Web 2.0” explosion hasn’t left employers unaffected. Employers check the Facebook pages of job applicants to learn more about them, and if the individuals don’t have the right privacy settings, anything is there for the viewing, including photos and comments that might not be the most flattering.

A woman in Zurich, Switzerland, recently found out about the perils of snooping employers online when she called in sick, saying she needed to lie down in the dark to get better and sitting in front of a lighted computer screen wouldn’t help her recovery. However, a co-worker went on Facebook and saw she was online. Word reached her supervisors and the company fired her for dishonesty. However, the woman claimed she was only viewing the site on her cellphone and claimed her employer sent her a false friend request so it could access her profile.

Online privacy issues were raised recently in Bozeman, Mont., where job applications with the city included a waiver allowing it to conduct a background check on the applicant, which is fairly standard. However, what wasn’t so standard was a part of the application that asked candidates to list “any and all current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube.com, MySpace, etc.”

It also requested candidates to include usernames and passwords for each site.

The city’s argument was that some positions, such as fire, police and lifeguards, require people of “high integrity” and checking online profiles and activity helped it flesh out candidates of “the highest moral character.”

It is important for employers, especially ones with safety and security sensitive jobs, to find employees who are the right fit. But is the City of Bozeman going too far? Do employers have the right to snoop in employee’s affairs outside of work through their online profiles and activity? Should what they find have any relevance in the workplace?

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