Northern Exposure

Facing Up to Facebook and Other Social Networking Web Sites in the Workplace

by Brian Smeenk

What if one of your employees reports to you he is very upset about what a coworker (“John”) wrote in a social networking web site about their boss? The statements are false and injure the boss’ reputation. If seen widely, they would be hurtful to the boss’ family. You are shown the statements by the employee, who is one of the “friends” with access to the author’s personal page.

What can or should a Canadian employer do if employees are using Facebook or similar social networking Internet web sites to hurt the reputation of a coworker? What if they are not making injurious statements but are spending a lot of time on this while at work? What are the risks to the employer of employee use of these sites? What can you do to limit or control these risks?

Questions such as these are becoming more and more pressing as use of these sites by employees becomes more prevalent.

Some facts
While Facebook is very popular in Canada at this time, there are several such sites popular across North America, including:

  • MySpace.com
  • LinkedIn.com
  • Tribe.net
  • LiveJournal.com
  • Friendster.com
  • Meetup.com

Started at Harvard University, Facebook has been open to the public only since 2006 but now has 80 million users, of which about 8.8 million are in Canada. Eighty-five percent of North American students are said to have a Facebook profile. Many of them are or will soon be in the labor force.

There are ostensible limits on those who can see some or all of a user’s personal information, such as only one’s “friends” or those within a particular group or network. However, often the network sponsor may hold an irrevocable license to use and distribute user information for commercial, advertising, or other purposes. In these networks, information is generally shared at the risk of the user.

Information placed in a network about a person or about the person’s employer or coworkers is in fact accessible to the public. The person who places the information on the system thereby loses control over it.

Some employer concerns
Employers’ valid concerns in relation to social networking sites used by their employees include:

  • waste of time by employees,
  • disclosure of employer’s confidential information,
  • defamatory statements about the company or its people, and
  • dissemination of hate information or obscenities or harassment by employees.

Employees may think that their comments on the social network are private in some sense and thus not the business of their employer. They may not understand the essentially public nature of the social network “conversation.”

Some employer responses
What can or should an employer do about these concerns?

First, it’s advisable to have a general policy regarding use of the Internet by employees. Rules should be in place about what is and is not the proper use of the employer’s computer system including:

  • use for personal business may be prohibited or limited,
  • use of specified websites that are clearly not work-related can be prohibited.
  • the employer can specify the reasons for which the Internet or a social network may be used while at work,
  • the policy can include prohibitions regarding participation in harassing or other improper behavior, and
  • you can warn employees that the computer is company property and may be checked by the employer periodically (subject to privacy issues in or two provinces).

In short, a good general policy regarding Internet use should head off many of the problems one can anticipate regarding improper use of social networking sites.

It’s also worthwhile to clearly communicate your rules to employees and managers, and to remind employees of the rules from time to time. Educate them that information posted to such sites can be accessed by the public, as it is out of their control. Employees may be told that they are responsible for what they post on the Internet, especially if it affects the employer.

It may also be useful to remind employees that they are prohibited from infringing their employer’s copyrights, whether that is simply its name, its logo, or other copyrighted information. Employers can have strict prohibitions against disclosure of confidential information or anything that identifies customers or other employees.

Further, Canadian law recognizes a duty of loyalty that employees owe to their employer. It may be useful to remind employees of this duty in this context.

As our writings, musings, or deeds become increasingly easy to distribute broadly, it may be that this duty of loyalty will be increasingly tested. But, with greater freedom and power (the freedom and power of Internet communication), we may all need to learn that this comes with greater individual responsibility — and potential consequences if we fail to exercise it.

In the above example, John may be subject to a defamation action. He may also be in breach of his duty of loyalty, and be subject to discipline — even discharge.  John may learn the hard way about the responsibility that we all have to not injure others — and how this duty applies in this age of modern communication.