Updated January 2013
Social networking is a great way to stay connected. It’s a handy way to share information, birth announcements, illness updates, meet-up plans… The question is, are all online relationships appropriate for work and should managers invite their direct reports as friends on Facebook? There are no hard and fast rules. In this post I’ll share my experiences and a recent B.C. Labour Relations Board ruling.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do the first time a client sent me a friend request on Facebook — but after some thought, I decided to accept the request. Turns out, that was a good decision. I’ve gotten to know quite a number of clients and colleagues – and sometimes their family members – in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had I not accepted. Soon after that, I widened out and began friending everyone I knew including people at my company. Over time I realized that I might be putting some people in an awkward spot. My policy now is that I accept all invitations from people at my company but I don’t initiate invitations to anyone who is junior to me because I don’t want them to feel obligated to accept. I did make an exception once so that I could give someone admin access to our corporate Facebook page. That created an unpleasant experience – leading me to recommit to my initial policy.
There are other reasons managers might want to reconsider friending employees on Facebook. Some employment lawyers recommend against it as management may learn something about the employee they don’t have the right to know. Then if the employee is terminated or laid off, there could be a claim that they were released as a result of something personal that was revealed on Facebook. Examples of this might be political views, religion or sexual preference.
And then there’s the uncomfortable task of stepping in to uphold the corporate reputation in the face of inappropriate comments. This comes up more often than you might think; not because there are lots of bad workers out there but because of two major misconceptions. The first misconception is that social media is part of the private world and business leaders have no right to comment on what is said on Facebook. Wrong. Social media sites are considered public places. Making statements on Facebook is exactly the same as publishing a notice in a newspaper. The second misconception is that posting work-related comments as a private citizen after hours is somehow different — exempt even — from daytime or work hours expectations. Wrong again. If it’s harmful to the business or to someone who works in the business, the harm is not eliminated by creating the comment after hours.
I had to deal with this myself when a temporary worker posted something very nasty about the management where he was working. Apparently he forgot that this manager was connected to him on Facebook and could see his disrespectful comment. He ended up being removed from a long-term assignment that paid $5 – $6 dollars above the average hourly pay rate and lost his opportunity to be the next one hired on as a permanent employee. What seemed snarky and funny at the moment triggered a series of unintended consequences as the client company felt that not taking swift action would send a weak and negative message to all the other employees who were privy to the Facebook comments.
What do the courts and tribunals say? In West Coast Mazda (d.b.a. West Coast Detail and Accessory Centre) and UFCW Local 1518, the B.C. Labour Relations Board ruled that the termination of two workers due to comments posted on Facebook were justifiable grounds for termination with cause. The ruling cites the combined Facebook audience of the workers in question as one of its deciding factors. The Labour Board also stated that derogatory comments made about management constitute insubordination. If you’re curious about the case, read Employees Fired For Facebook Postings.