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A Friend Indeed: Do Facebook Users Really Have Privacy Rights at Work?

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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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael August 9, 2012 at 9:32 am

I only have family as friends on Facebook and my privacy settings are set so only friends can see my posts. So even if I say something about my employer they will never know because they can not see my page. It is none of thier business what I post on my private page.


anonymous July 19, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Viewed as private, by the law.


anonymous July 19, 2012 at 4:12 pm

So with Facebook changes recently, they have friend groups you can post to; family, coworkers, bosses, friends who you can trust, church folks, my association name, business contacts, etc. Therefore, if a person doesn’t post to “public” it should all be covered except when posting to “public”.


Sandy Estrada July 19, 2012 at 9:31 pm

If you don’t want to get exposed, DON’T expose yourself.We must be responsible for all our actions.Once your thoughts are posted in the net, they are now public properties. We should learn to keep private things in the privacy of your own thoughts, where no one – not even the sneakiest person can get hold of them (in written form). Professionals ought to realize that they are damaging their employers’ reputation with their actions, posts, etc. and when they are violating company policies on ethics.


Sandy Estrada August 9, 2012 at 10:53 pm

I don’t see why people would “unload” their frustrations with employers via facebook, etc. It’s not my idea of “social networking” but rather “anti-social and unprofessional”- even on private setting. Those who are out to discredit their employers by badmouthing them ought to give themselves a break by looking for another place to work. Maybe they are not happy with what they are doing so why waste their time? They are unworthy ingrates.


Melanie September 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I agree. It is very poor judgment to criticize one’s employer on a public forum, no matter what the privacy settings are.


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