Although social media is no longer a new phenomenon, evidently even people who should know better still have not grasped that nothing on the Internet is confidential. What’s more, there is no sure demarcation between private postings and those that spill over onto your resume like an indelible coffee stain.
Exhibit A is a high level General Services Administration official who recently made news (and got suspended) after pictures of his family’s taxpayer-funded “business trips” to Hawaii and Las Vegas showed up on Facebook. A post by his daughter reportedly included comments like “The number one BEST part of the vacation. AMAZING. Snorkeling at Black Rock in Maui” and photos of the official, Jeff Neely, grinning from a hot tub. Emails also have emerged where Neely referred to a government-funded trip as his wife’s birthday present. Neely has since developed an intimate acquaintance with the Fifth Amendment.
Next up is the school board member who, when contacted by a reporter about a racist post on his Facebook page, blamed his teenage son. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Morton school board member and Cicero employee Michael Iniquez’s Facebook page displayed a racial slur next to a photo of a “nearly naked, dancing black child.” The post had been up since December and prompted racist comments from friends. Iniquez contended that his son was responsible for the post, even though the boy has his own Facebook page. He “is going to get grounded over this,” Iniquez told the Sun-Times. He also reportedly blamed his son for “friending” a stripper from his account. Somebody is getting an education here, we think.
Iniquez’s defense is not new – a couple years ago, after a Cleveland newspaper identified a judge who allegedly commented on her own cases on the newspaper’s website, the judge’s daughter attempted to take the blame.
And today the Daily Mail reports that one of the Secret Service Agents caught up in the Colombia prostitution scandal apparently could not keep secret that he was “really checking out” Sarah Palin while assigned to protect her during the 2008 campaign. He posted the comment – along with pictures – on Facebook. Good luck to him in the private sector.
Government employees sometimes assert First Amendment barriers when disciplined for online speech, although with rare success. Private employers, however, should not assume that only public officials’ posts might make headlines – the Sun-Times also recently reported on a nightclub bartender who was fired for derogatory Facebook posts.
Nor do news organizations present the most risk to the indiscreet. Scammers view accounts in creating profiles to gain access to workplace systems and even your coworkers may rat you out. Employers report an increase in “Facebook snitches” – employees who friend coworkers and then pass what they see on to supervisors, who then must deal with the unsolicited, and possibly unwanted, information to determine whether somebody must be disciplined or fired. The headache is magnified if discipline for online speech might not be uniform or engenders privacy claims, or even attracts the attention of the National Labor Relations Board.
Obviously, with supposed authority figures choosing unwisely, no employer should rely on anyone using common sense when deliberating whether to hit that “enter” key. At a minimum, employers should implement some clearly worded policies, if only to save employees from themselves.