Employers Firing Employees over Information Found on Popular Social Media Sites Face Legal Risks

By Thomas Ahearn, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) News Editor

A recent article on the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) website ‘Employers Tread a Minefield’ – warns employers about “tripping over legal potholes in social media” if they choose to fire people over alleged social media infractions as more employees and job applicants access popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

While job seekers and employees have been warned that what they post on popular social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter during their private time could come back to haunt their public careers, employers are now increasingly facing questions about their own policies regarding social media usage that outlines what is, and what is not, appropriate.

Due to the fact that these social network sites are a virtual treasure trove of personal information about employees and job applicants, the WSJ article cautions employers about the potential for litigation over social media use of employees, citing several legal cases as examples.

  • A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge – in the federal agency’s first ‘social media complaint’ – will soon consider whether a medical transportation company illegally fired a worker in Connecticut after she criticized her boss on Facebook (UPDATE: Connecticut Facebook Firing Settlement Talks in Works).
  • Workers in New Jersey sued a restaurant company when they were dismissed after managers accessed a private Myspace page the employees set up to chat about work.
  • A Silicon Valley company was sued twice for comments an anonymous blogger (who was also an attorney for the company at the time) made about two lawyers and their patent-infringement suit against the company.
  • A former Georgia high school teacher has sued the local school district claiming that she was forced to resign her position over photos on Facebook that showed her drinking alcohol during a vacation in Europe.

While information about job applicants and employees found on social media may seem tempting to employers, viewing such information could lead to issues of discrimination, privacy, and authenticity and accuracy if a person is a victim of “cyber slamming.”

Yet, despite these dangers, employers seem intent on using social media for screening. A 2009 survey of more than 2,600 hiring managers conducted by leading job networking site CareerBuilder.com found nearly half of employers – 45 percent – used social networking sites to research candidates. The survey also revealed that 35 percent of employers rejected job applicants based on what was uncovered on social networking sites. Of these 35 percent:

  • 53 percent cited provocative/inappropriate photographs or information.
  • 44 percent cited content about drinking or using drugs.
  • 35 percent cited bad-mouthing of previous employers, co-workers or clients.
  • 29 percent cited poor communication skills.
  • 26 percent cited discriminatory comments.
  • 24 percent cited misrepresentation of qualifications.
  • 20 percent cited sharing confidential information from a previous employer.

Experts quoted in the WSJ article say the best defense against legal action for employers is to establish a social media policy and train employees about the policy, something that experts estimate that fewer than half of U.S. companies have done. In the meantime, the amount of legal action resulting from employer missteps in social media is likely to rise.

The issue of using social network sites such as Facebook to screen job candidates increasing the legal risk for employers was the Number 6 Background Screening Trend for 2011 for 2011. For a complete list of the Employment Screening Resources (ESR) Fourth Annual ‘Top Ten Trends in Background Screening’ for 2011, visit http://www.esrcheck.com/Top-Ten-Trends-In-Background-Screening-2011.php.

In addition, Lester Rosen, safe hiring expert and founder and President of Employment Screening Resources (ESR),  a background check company accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), recently participated in a podcast on BackInfoSecurity.com, ‘Background Checks: Beware Social Media,’ and talked about how employers use, and sometimes abuse, social media for background checks. For more information, visit http://www.bankinfosecurity.com/podcasts.php?podcastID=951.

Founded in 1996 in the San Francisco area, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) wrote the book on background checks with ‘The Safe Hiring Manual’ by ESR founder and President Lester Rosen and is accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) . To learn more about Employment Screening Resources, visit http://www.ESRcheck.com or contact Jared Callahan, ESR Director of Client Relations, at 415.898.0044 or jcallahan@ESRcheck.com.

Source:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703954004576089850685724570.html
http://thehiringsite.careerbuilder.com/2009/08/20/nearly-half-of-employers-use-social-networking-sites-to-screen-job-candidates/