March 19, 2014 11:37 pm

Should you become your boss’s Facebook friend?

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As Facebook continues to remove barriers to content created on its site, more and more companies will be able to view their employees’ pages and see the information they have posted. Anonymity is no longer an option.

In this situation, how should employees react if they are sent a friend request by their boss? Will it be detrimental to their jobs if they decline the request?

. . .

Madeleine Thomson, head of employment at law firm Hamlins, says:

If you are already employed, it is much easier to turn down a Facebook request from your boss than if you are in the recruitment process. Prospective employees will fear damaging their chances of a job offer if they decline a request.

However, Facebook content may well provide answers to questions that employers are not permitted in law to ask about at interview, such as age, relationship status and children.

Employers wishing to make a friend request are well advised to implement a policy beforehand, setting out their objectives, any limits on their usage and to what extent employees are permitted to reject such requests. Employers in some sectors might have better grounds to do so than others.

Where employees use Facebook in the course of their work, this could strengthen the employer’s arguments for having access. Some employees have responded by setting up a business Facebook account in addition to their social account and simply giving the employer access to the business account.

Privacy law is certainly on the back foot regarding protection for employees who do not want their employers to access their social media accounts.

Nevertheless, if the employer treats an employee less favourably after viewing their Facebook pages, this may give rise to discrimination claims if the unfair treatment can be linked to discovering information from the site. For example, the employer finds out from Facebook that the employee is pregnant before the employee has informed the company, and it then terminates her employment.

Clearly employees should not be naive in maintaining their Facebook pages. Anything posted is potentially there for posterity and is to a large extent public.

If an employee’s Facebook content undermines the employer, its customers or personnel, it is foreseeable that the employer or a work colleague will see it. That may prejudice career prospects or lead to disciplinary action or dismissal.

Steve Kuncewicz, associate and head of IP and media at Bermans, says:

Employers may contemplate taking disciplinary action against an employee over online posts for two main reasons: either the content (images, video, text, etc) reveals behaviour that can lead to dismissal; or it contains a view from which an employer wants to distance itself.

Depending on the wording of an employment contract or social media policy, even content posted outside working hours via a home PC or smartphone could be monitored legitimately and count as “gross misconduct” or “bringing the business into disrepute”, both of them grounds for dismissal. Posting controversial or iconoclastic views online is not always enough to justify dismissal, but actively maligning an employer may well be. Employers must act proportionately and not dismiss in haste for mildly offensive material.

That said, any monitoring of employees via social media must comply with data protection and human rights legislation by being justified (dependent on the role), proportionate, communicated to employees in a form that gives the reasons behind it – and ideally carried out with specific consent.

Outside the legal issues of your boss seeing what you post, however, there’s also the small matter of common sense. Connecting over Facebook is more personal than, for example, connecting via LinkedIn and to avoid oversharing leading to dismissal or worse, it is always worth thinking about what you post before you do so.

Social media create (depending upon your privacy settings) a “time capsule” that could haunt you for years to come, especially if the nature of your role requires a higher standard of behaviour than the average.

It is always worth thinking about which “friends” you invite into your online life, as well as how you want to portray yourself.

Declining a Facebook friend request from your boss cannot get you fired, and as much as the line may continue to blur between your personal and work personae online, surely it is worth airing at least some of your personal views in relative privacy?

Either that, or connect via LinkedIn, where the atmosphere is more professional and you are less likely to post in haste and repent at leisure.

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