Friday, November 16, 2007

Can employers base employment decisions on employees' personal internet activities?

Courtesy of The Washington Post comes this gem:

Kevin Colvin, an intern at the Anglo Irish Bank of North America ... e-mailed his manager on the afternoon of Oct. 31 claiming "something came up at home" in New York and that he needed to miss work the next day. For whatever reason, perhaps managerial intuition, his boss decided to inspect Colvin's Facebook page on Nov. 1 and apparently found pictures of the intern dressed as a fairy, beer in hand, at a Halloween party in Massachusetts.

Rather than reprimand him, the manager decided to have a little fun. He shot Colvin an e-mail back stating: "Thanks for letting us know -- hope everything is ok in New York. (cool wand)" with the fairy picture attached. And if that weren't embarrassing enough, the manager reportedly BCCed the rest of the company. Those images are now being forwarded to offices around the world for cubicle dwellers to enjoy.

(The article has a link to the offending picture, for those who are curious).

The internet now provides a plethora of social outlets -- blogs, social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, video repositories such as YouTube and Break, and even an entire alternate universe, Second Life. Once someone puts something out on the internet, it becomes fair game for anyone and everyone to see, employers included. The WP article cites a survey in which 82 percent of employers responded that negative information from an online profile would affect their decision to hire an applicant. Presumably a similar but likely small number would also consider negative online information in a decision to continue the employment of a current employee. It is hard to imagine that an employer is somehow invading an employee's privacy by viewing something that is publicly available on the web. If an employee is at-will, and standards are otherwise neutrally applied, there should not be anything unlawful about making a hiring or employment decision based on an employee's personal internet presence, especially if you catch the employee in a lie, such as was the case with Kevin Colvin.