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Inappropriate Work-related Facebook Checkups

2009 November 30

An insurance company, Manulife, has withdrawn a woman’s long-term sick leave benefits associated with a diagnosis of major depression after viewing pictures of her on Facebook:

She said her insurance agent described several pictures Blanchard posted on the popular social networking site, including ones showing her having a good time at a Chippendales bar show, at her birthday party and on a sun holiday — evidence that she is no longer depressed, Manulife said.

Of course, as a psychologist, I cringe at that statement.  Evidence of the presence or absence of any mental condition cannot be determined from a handful of photos.  According to the woman, she was trying to enjoy herself out on the advice of her therapist, which really makes this a sort of double whammy.

I’m not going to try to guess her true condition myself (check out the 692 commenting armchair psychologists if you are interested in that).  I’m more interested, instead, in how far the insurance company was willing to go to obtain information about their client. Concerning such information, Manulife’s spokesperson reasoned, “We can’t ignore it, wherever the source of the information is.”

As a manager or HR rep, is there the same pressure?  If you know an employee has been late to work a few times, is the investigation of their publicly available social network resources and history appropriate?  The key here, I think, is “publicly available.”  If someone posts drunken pictures of themselves unprotected to Flickr, haven’t they given up the right to privacy?  But even if that is technically true, do employees feel that way when their photo is discovered?  I’m imagining not.

This highlights for me the real trouble with the increasing integration of people’s private lives with the Internet.  In the pre-Internet era, if you did something stupid and it was caught on film, it might make the rounds amongst your friends a couple of times before being forgotten.  The Internet, on the other hand, has a very long memory.  Anything you do that ends up online – and at whatever point in your life you do it – is likely to be online in some form forever.  Trying to get a job at 25 or 30, do you want your  “hidden” MySpace and Facebook photos from when you got drunk at 20 surfacing during a job interview?

The traditional viewpoint is, of course, too bad for you.  You reap what you sow.  If you don’t want to be held responsible for anything you ever did, don’t do anything wrong.  Is that a realistic tack for the average person?  Probably not.

So considering this, I encourage organizations to instead act ethically.  Even if delving into employees’ personal lives is legal, it is not usually appropriate.  And for you bottom-line people out there, I doubt the information gathered from these nefarious schemes will ever justify the amount of money and productivity lost from wasting time doing the searches in the first place.  After all, if they did anything truly of concern, it would probably appear in a traditional background check.  If you’re worried, just do that instead!

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  1. Shawna permalink
    November 30, 2009

    I like your conclusions. Very reasonable.

    My own beef with this practice of checking up on people is that previous generations of folks regarded as dependable, conscientious workers have had probably comparable — but invisible — partying habits. Having no standards by which to judge the habits of “normal” successful workers gives us no reliable basis of comparison. At the moment, therefore, any judgment rendered from this evidence is more cherry-picking and guess-work than anything.

  2. Shawna permalink
    November 30, 2009

    (Also, it’s kind of awesome that you are literally an expert on this subject, no?)

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