Fired For Facebook: Employer Monitoring of Internet Social Networks
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With the emergence of technology, generations of today are subjected to experiences that past generations were not. The popularity of the internet has exploded into our culture over the last decade. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace allow their users to share images, videos, and even opinions with one another as well as other viewers. With the memberships of Facebook and Myspace approaching 200 million a piece, it is no surprise that the information being exchanged over the web is gaining much attention. Members of the business world are using these social networks to their advantage as well as to their employees’ disadvantages. Facebook and Myspace are now commonly consulted as supplements to a resume’ or even as means of keeping an eye on existing employees. The investigation of social networks by employers in order to monitor the conversations of their employees outside of work is not only a violation of each employee’s private life, but is morally unacceptable is most situations.
On November 1, 2008, Virgin Atlantic Airlines in London announced the termination of thirteen employees. Virgin Atlantic Airlines charged these employees with making derogatory comments about the airline and its passengers on social networking site- Facebook. Virgin Atlantic Airlines released the following statement:
“Virgin Atlantic Airlines can confirm that thirteen members of its cabin crew will be leaving the company after breaking staff policies due to totally inappropriate behavior. Following a thorough investigation, it was found that all thirteen staff participated in a discussion on the networking site Facebook, which brought the
company into disrepute and insulted some of our passengers.” (NYDailyNews, 2008)
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Officials at Virgin Atlantic also stated that a cabin staff that held the views that these employees hold are not those that are expected of an ideal customer service employee. The employees each participated in an online conversation that spoke of poor jet engine maintenance, cockroaches on planes, and referred to the passengers as “chavs”. A “chav” is a derogatory slang term in England used for a person whose speech, mannerisms, and lifestyle are seen as poor and common. It is often seen as the equivalent to the American slang term: “white trash”. While each employee was not at work when the online conversation took place, the content of the conversation was discovered by an unmentioned source and made aware to Virgin Atlantic Airlines executives.
In a capitalist society, it is sometimes forgotten that individuals are people first and employees second, rather than the other way around. Employees are morally entitled to obtain social lives. People take great value in being able to make certain decisions in their private, non-work, lives without another’s control. Maintaining autonomy is not only an ethical right, but it is a necessity in human development and mental health (Graves & Larkin, 2006). Pertaining to the Virgin Atlantic case, one must consider the nature of Facebook. Unlike “blogs” or web logs, which are online articles that are solely written for a public audience, Facebook posts are not geared towards the public. Facebook conversations are only viewable on the conversationalists’ web pages or
“profiles”. With Facebook’s privacy settings, the content of those profiles can only be seen by Facebook users who are given permission by the owner of the specific profile.
The difference between a blog and a Facebook post can be illustrated as follows: A blog relates to a letter to the editor in a newspaper, whereas a Facebook post relates more to a
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letter to a friend that is posted on a bulletin board in the living room of that friend’s house. With that said, the employees of Virgin Atlantic Airlines did not make their derogatory remarks with the intent to inform the world, as it would have seemed written in a blog; they made them in an attempt to vent their frustrations and relate to their coworkers by a means that seemingly provided free-speaking security.
The Virgin Atlantic employees did, however, know that the information posted on Facebook could potentially be seen by other viewers. This knowledge, in itself, rebuts the argument that the privacy of each employee was violated. The fact that the content of the insulting conversation could be viewed by potential customers is Virgin Atlantic Airlines’ primary reason for terminating all thirteen employees involved. If prospective customers of Virgin Atlantic came across those remarks made by actual employees of the airline, they could quite possibly choose another airline due to the reliability of the source. Therefore, Virgin Atlantic Airlines made its decision on the basis of serving its financial needs. Furthermore, the employees were under no protection of contract and the “Employment at Will” doctrine states that an employer may fire an employee at any time for any reason. In this situation, Virgin Atlantic felt it was in its best interest to dismiss those thirteen employees.
Virgin Atlantic Airlines may have been well within its legal rights to fire its thirteen employees for their actions, but it did not have moral reason to do so. The conversation that took place was done so outside of work and in a personal setting.
Facebook is a restricted social network and its conversations are not designed for public flaunt. The investigatory actions of Virgin Atlantic in this situation is equivalent to an
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employer hiring an investigator to record conversations held by his employees in a bar after work. In that situation, the employees should be entitled to freely speak about whatever they choose, as should users of Facebook. The bottom line is that the division between professional and personal becomes blurry when the internet is considered. Ethical questions surround what can now be discovered about job applicants, coworkers, potential friends, etc. (Casey & Stephens, 2008). Of course, employers should have some restrictions on employee internet activity, but those restrictions should be carefully placed. When a paramedic posts gruesome pictures of the aftermath of a fatal car accident, a police officer shares his love for marijuana in a blog, or a teacher exchanges sexual experiences with a student through Facebook posts, immediate disciplinary action should take place. However, when employers go to the extreme of prosecuting employees for merely stating their opinions on their own personal web pages, those employers have gone too far. Employees should have equal rights as people to express themselves, communicate with others, and be entertained by the many features of the internet as long as no legal laws are broken.