How Facebook mucks up office life

Managing a workforce is already a challenging job; now Facebook and other social networks raise a host of sticky new situations.

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A March 2007 survey by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy and data-protection think tank, found that 23 percent of hiring managers checked social networking sites for data about job candidates. It's a trend that's not going away anytime soon, says Mike Spinney, an analyst with Ponemon. "The growing popularity of Google, awareness and rapid adoption of social networking utilities, and ongoing media attention strongly suggest that the practice is more widespread today than it was two years ago," he reports.

Nevertheless, a summer 2007 study by the workforce consulting firm Adecco found that "66 percent of Generation Y respondents were not aware that these seemingly private photos, comments and statements [on social networking sites] were audited by potential employers." (For more on the long life of your online reputation, see Deleting your digital past -- for good.)

Facebook encourages people to join Networks -- affiliations of users around shared interests and categories, either set up by the site itself (region, workplace, high school, or college) or created by other users. But Facebook's default setting is to make the profiles of network members visible to everyone in the same network. That means, unless they change their settings manually, your employees' wall posts, personal info, and photos can easily be viewed by others, whether they're direct friends or not.

Kim Goldberg, an insurance claims manager, discovered that connection the hard way. She relates: "I went on a job interview at a company I had worked for in the past. I was walking around the office visiting old friends, and one said, 'I heard you just made plane reservations to go to Florida.' I was shocked -- how could she know that? I hadn't talked to her in years, and the trip was still a surprise to my own kids!" Even more urgent, Goldberg certainly didn't want her prospective new employer to know she'd need time off so soon after coming on-board.

"I asked how she knew," Goldberg continues, "and she said she saw it on my husband's Facebook page. I was so confused. She and my husband were not even Facebook friends."

Goldberg eventually figured out that the former co-worker and her husband were both part of the same regional network on Facebook, and that was how she obtained access to his personal page. "My husband immediately changed his privacy settings," Goldberg concludes, "but the incident could have cost me the job."

In the era of corporate layoffs, stories abound of ex-employees using Facebook and Twitter as an instant support mechanism during and immediately after their downsizing.

But when news of layoffs happens in real-time -- spreading quickly to a wide group of interrelated people, sometimes before other employees have been formally notified of their fate -- the burden lands on corporate communications to stay ahead of the story, as executives from American Express and Serena Software discussed at an employee management conference late last year (see video).

Facebook blurs the line between worker and boss

Facebook can be a swamp for boss and employee alike as everything from romantic entanglements and political views to over-sharing about recreational substance use makes its way from the digital world to the physical office.

If your top programmer announces on Facebook that she's pregnant, but neglects to tell you in real life, is this information you now "know" for planning purposes or not? If a long-time contract programmer shares in his status update that he just got a contract to write a book, are you out of line in asking if he still has time for your projects?

Beyond discretion, there are potential legal issues as well. If one of your direct reports posts links on Facebook to "adult" YouTube videos, could another employee maintain that it creates a hostile workplace environment? Is it your responsibility to do something about it? As with workplace harassment issues from 20 years ago, the answer seems to be "nobody knows -- or at least not yet."

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