Are you free, or does your employer own you?

In the past couple months, I engaged in a lively debate on a mailing list over whether or not employers should be allowed to consider an employee’s (or job applicant’s) social life (as showcased on Facebook, MySpace, a personal blog, or any other social web site) in making decisions about that employee. My argument is that what I do off the clock is none of my employer’s damned business. A shocking number of people (it seemed to be a 50/50 split, actually) seemed to think employers have the right. Mostly (and predictably) the argument centered around “inappropriate” behavior. Drinking, acting drunk, nudity… but here’s a story of someone getting sacked for simply having a sense of humor, off-duty, on her personal website. She’s not even speaking ill of her employer or using her employer’s name in the material. Boss didn’t like her sense of humor, now she’s out of a job. Where do employer rights end and employee (human) rights begin?

edit: added link to the material she got sacked for, so you can judge for yourself.

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  • Jeff, KE9V  On December 22, 2007 at 11:15 am

    While I agree with you in principle, the truth is that what a person does in their spare time helps to define who they are…

    Let’s take an imaginary fellow named, “Adolph” who is the leader of a local neo-Nazi organization in his spare time. He publishes a litany of racist and facist newsletters and spends two weeks each summer at a neo-Nazi training camp in Syria. We know all this because he maintains a Web log where he describes his beliefs about the world in excruciating detail.

    A potential employer ‘Googles’ this guy before hiring him to be their new Human Relations manager in their company and is shocked to learn they nearly hired a Nazi!

    Doesn’t the employer have a right to search for that info and make hiring decision based on what they find?

    Anonymity is a wondeful thing but between Google and the government ‘anonymity’ is purely a fictional concept and I think there are a LOT of kids out there right now dumping their hormonal bile into Facebook — and they’re destined to face a future of unemployment and hard times…

  • wolfger  On December 22, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Ah, nothing like an unrealistic extreme to make a point, eh? Okay, a blatant racist is not only a poor candidate for HR, but also a glaring legal liability for the company. This one’s a no-brainer for the employer. He’s got no brain if he hires this guy for this position. But what if the guy’s applying to be a CNC operator, and he’s not only qualified… he’s actually quite good. Do you think that changes things, or do you think it’s okay to discriminate against people based on their belief system? Because if it’s okay to not hire a machine operator because he thinks Hitler was right, it’s equally okay to not hire a machine operator because he thinks Darwin was right, or because he thinks Jesus was right.

  • Jeff, KE9V  On December 22, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    You assume my example is an “unrealistic extreme” so let’s go another way. Let’s assume some guy enjoys firearms and has a huge collection of guns at home. Perfectly legal and nothing to worry about. Now let’s say you ‘Google’ the guy before you hire him and you see he is a big time firearms collector — he owns the domain And you hire him. And two years later he goes on a shooting rampage at work and kills 10 people.

    Are you negligent for hiring a guy who you knew was a gun enthusiast? Could you be fired or sued — or cause the company to be sued because you had that info and knew it when you hired him?

    We live in an age of litigation and liability can be tremendous.

    It may not be “right” and what a person does outside of work shouldn’t directly impact what the employer thinks about that person — but it does.

    Facebook, blogs, any online communication is akin to putting a HUGE lighted billboard in your backyard with all your dark little secrets there for everyone to see…

    I think the idea for the “information age” was that it would permit *us* to get more information — truth is, all the information is ABOUT *us* and there are no more secrets.

    You can wear a racist tattoo under a shirt and no one sees it. On the Internet — everyone will see it and know about it. And from that, they will form instantaneous opinions about the kind of person you are.

    Could that cost you your job? You bet!

  • wolfger  On December 22, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Nice way to completely avoid answering my question 🙂

    Negligent for hiring a gun enthusiast? Not a chance! I doubt you’ll find many judges or juries who see it that way, either.

    You say “it may not be right…shouldn’t…but it does”, and in doing so, you’ve avoided the thrust of my post. I’m not arguing about whether it “does” or not… that part’s rather obvious. I’m arguing the “shouldn’t”, and arguing that legal protections be but into place before we discover we’ve got an entire generation of people who are unemployable because you can find out everything about them online.

  • Jeff, KE9V  On December 22, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    I’m saying it does happen; it is fair; and it will result in people getting fired and not being employable in the future. There should be no legal protection to prevent it.

    It’s precisely why it is a bad idea for people to have Web logs, online diaries, personal Web pages, Facebook accounts, Flickr accounts, etc.

    In the old days people worked at their jobs and went home and griped about life/love/work/boss to their dog, their wife or their girlfriend. These days, they foolishly put it on the Web … and Google forgets nothing.

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