Employee Social Networking Sites: A Plethora of Information, But be Careful What You Wish For
By Michael C. Schmidt Partner, Cozen O'Connor | January 22, 2010
How much information would you like to have about your employees before you make a decision about whether to hire or fire them? If you had access to all public and private information about them at the click of a mouse, would you seize the opportunity? Be careful what you wish for.
This fall season brings with it various employment-related decisions that will be made by hotel employers. For some, the end of the summer and the approach of a new calendar year will prompt the hiring of new employees. For others, the current economic climate will continue to result in corporate downsizing and layoffs. In either case, employers are turning with greater frequency to social networking Web sites as a means of obtaining information on potential and current employees; information beyond what can be readily gleaned from the application process, or from a current employee's performance history.
However, with the benefits and ease of technology also comes the legal implications that employers must consider when deciding to use social networking sites in their decision-making processes. This article identifies the primary problems associated with the use of social networking sites by employers in the private sector (as opposed to government and other public employers), and offers some best practices to effectively address some of the potential pitfalls.
There is no denying the prevalence of social networking sites in society today. According to recent published statistics, MySpace and Facebook have approximately 100 million and 47 million registered users, respectively, all of whom post and share a wide array of information about their personal, social and professional lives. More recently, Twitter has entered the popular culture landscape, allowing users to post 140-character microblogs from a cell phone at the pace of an instant message. According to cnn.com, Twitter use has grown more than 1300 percent in the 12 months between February 2008 and February 2009.
Employers have caught on. A survey of employers has revealed, for example, that approximately 61 percent of professional service companies routinely conduct Google searches on job applicants, while more than 50 percent of companies use social networking sites as a portal to information about potential or current employees. To the extent that these networking sites provide such personal information as the individual's interests, affiliations, blogs, and picture, it is easy to see why employers might want to get a "more complete" picture about an individual.
There are four primary legal concerns, however, with a private employer's use of social networking sites for employment decisions.