Are you joshing me? Employees post on their Facebook pages everything from photos of themselves drunk while wearing grass skirts to doing handstands in miniskirts. At last count, the 901 million Facebook users have more than 125 billion “friends.”
But, who is really your friend on Facebook? If a manager strong-arms a co-worker to get access to an employee’s Facebook page, is that an invasion of your privacy? One court recently held it certainly might be. Read on to see how this case is helping us to better define the social media boundaries and avoid the cyber landmines …
Case in Point: Deborah Ehling, a paramedic at a New Jersey hospital, served as the acting president of her local paramedics union.
One day, on her Facebook page, Ehling criticized first responders' activities during a shooting incident in Washington, D.C. After the hospital got wind of the posting, a supervisor strong-armed one of Ehling’s Facebook friends (an employee at the hospital) to get access to Ehling’s Facebook postings.
Subsequently, the hospital sent letters regarding Ehling's Facebook posting to the New Jersey Board of Nursing and New Jersey Department of Health, saying the hospital was concerned that Ehling's Facebook posting showed a disregard for patient safety.
Ehling argued that these letters were sent in a “malicious” attempt to damage her reputation, her employment opportunities and paramedic certification status. Ehling sued her employer for invasion of privacy. The hospital defended the claim by saying Ehling should have no reasonable expectation of privacy when she posts something on Facebook.
Decision: “Privacy in social networking is an emerging, but underdeveloped, area of case law,” the court said. On one hand, case law has determined that where posts are placed in cyberspace for everyone to view, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. On the other end of the spectrum, users may have an expectation of privacy if they only invite specific friends to visit their cyber pages.
Because these type of cases can be so fact-specific, they must be decided on a case-by-case basis. So the judge clicked the “Send” button and the case went off for a jury trial. (Ehling v. Monmouth Ocean Hosp. Serv. Corp., D.N.J., 5/30/12)
3 Lessons Learned … Without Having to Go to Court
1. Don’t be sneaky. Curiosity may make you want to read an employee’s Facebook page, but never coerce anyone to get you there. A real friend will friend you.
2. Be wary of what you read. What’s posted on social media sites may be true, false or just plain beyond business use under federal, state and local laws.
3. Don’t be the poster child of new law. Before you ever gain access to an employee’s social media page or use their information for or against them, please reach out to legal counsel. This area of law is in the embryo stage and you don’t want to be part of its development.