May 19, 2009
Facebook is blurring the boundaries between work and private life and sometimes the consequences are at the employee’s expense, writes Michelle Wilding.
Maria’s nightmare began after a long weekend when she logged on to check her emails only to find: “The boss added you as a friend on Facebook” staring at her through her inbox screen.
Above this was a message notification sent via Facebook candidly asking why she denied accepting her boss as a friend. Maria had not even been online for almost 36 hours. Having no choice, she bit the bullet and accepted her boss as a Facebook friend.
Facebook now boasts 108.3 million users, reports Nielsen Online. As the world’s most popular social networking site, it’s not too comforting to know online bullying tactics from your boss are enough to knock down your safeguarded Facebook page that was once locked by private settings.
Unfortunately, former service operator Maria was cornered: she was vulnerable to her “unscrupulous service manager” at one of Australia’s leading supermarket chains. Maria says she was fearful, vexed and defenceless when her boss began using her online information to manipulate her work life.
It started with inappropriate innuendos regarding Facebook photos. More seriously, Maria’s work hours were exploited and she received abusive confrontations and phone calls questioning her availability and every move.
“My boss was a gossiping, domineering, contriving megalomaniac and her behaviour dramatically intensified when she used Facebook to pry,” Maria says.
“I’m a student, so it’s very rare to have a night out. If plans came up, she would purposely make me work. If I needed money, she’d take advantage of that need and cancel my shifts, stripping me of my dignity.
“I don’t know where she got off. She was worse than Stephanie from The Bold And The Beautiful. She played with employee lives like we were her toys. It upset me so much I finally stood up for myself and quit. I feel like I got my freedom back and can breathe again.”
Maria notes one occasion when she RSVPed on Facebook to attend the Future Music Festival with workmates. Unexpectedly she was rostered on the early morning shift the next day, something she believes was calculated.
“As a senior, I was told I wasn’t allowed to work weekends … Then, all of a sudden, the weekend Future is on I was put on first thing the next morning. I found it interesting that my boss could bend the ‘no seniors on weekends’ rule when it suited her,” she says.
The executive director of UNSW’s Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, David Vaile, says Maria’s case is a useful example of how personal information stored on a Facebook page can be abused, noting the consequences of posting personal information online aren’t necessarily clear because it’s relatively new technology.
“Privacy law has a gaping black hole that does not protect employee privacy and Facebook is outside of that,” Vaile says.
“I think it’s an abuse of the boss’s prerogative to threaten and use their power over their employee’s contract to require access to their Facebook page. On the other hand, there is no idea that Facebook is safe for anyone. Maybe Facebook is required by law to let police have access to a person’s page.”
A range of legal and business reputation risks attached to Facebook concerns Vaile. He says the risks are serious and users should think twice before signing up or sharing private information on Facebook.
“Cyber stalking, harassment, defamation, breach of duty, damage to reputation of workplace: the inherent reliability of that, in the same way that it’s sort of a dangerous and cheap temptation for individuals and also businesses, employers and universities, is a data mine for tragedy,” Vaile says.
Maria’s isn’t the only case of employer Facebook abuse. Former discount retail employee Grace Leasa, 19, was shocked when her then boss made a derogatory remark on her page. After a quarrel with a friend, she updated her Facebook status to: “Grace just can’t do it any more.” To which her boss commented: “You Pussy.”
“I was just surprised because at work he’d act like a friend to the other employees but he’d never been like that with me before,” Leasa says.
“It was sort of degrading because I don’t even talk to this guy.”
Another element through which businesses can intimidate and keep track of their employees is on Facebook groups. Cosmetic retail representative Lucy (not her real name) received two requests to join her work group before she “reluctantly” accepted. The 20-year-old says she was pressured to attend optional work meetings via the group’s listing and experienced online bullying.
“I received updates on meetings and events,” she says.
“I felt the need to put ‘maybe attending’ due to university commitments. If I put ‘not attending’ I would be encouraged by phone to attend. It was pretty much like they were looking into my personal life. But now that I’ve left the group, I feel liberated.
“I also didn’t want to be a part of the group so Facebook users could check up on where I work. That’s another invasion of privacy.”
Not all Facebook employer-employee relationships are troublesome. Doughnut shop worker Kimberley Driver, 20, says she never thinks twice about writing on her Facebook page because she gets along with her boss.
“It would suck if my boss was different,” Driver says.
“It’s your profile to express what you’re feeling and what you want to say. You shouldn’t have to be restricted or toned down by anyone.”
One major problem many users are oblivious of is that their profile is automatically set to be on public view.
Media arts production student Chris Noble, 21, found that out the hard way. He signed up to Facebook 10 months ago and couldn’t figure out why random people were contacting him.
“I couldn’t believe that. I thought [my Facebook profile] was set to private mode. I felt vulnerable and annoyed that anyone, complete strangers, could view my page and information and I had no idea that it was my duty to change the default settings from public viewing to private. It’s ridiculous,” Noble says.
At the end of the day, if you’re going to use Facebook, make sure your profile settings are appropriate. Take advantage of friend category lists such as family, colleagues, friends and acquaintances to filter your relationships and content.
And if your boss does decide to add you on Facebook, it’s not career suicide if you place them on limited profile, where certain parts of your profile content become restricted to them.
After all, do you really want them seeing a photo of you in a bikini or Speedos roaming freely on the beach?
Let’s face it: Facebook was designed as a personal platform for social communication – and for some people, that means leaving work relationships at the office.