Can Your Employees Have a Private Life Online?

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The client on the phone was completely freaked out. She’d gotten a call, she said, from some guy whose son had been

Employees been Tweeting again?

Employees been Tweeting again?

looking up product reviews online and ran across a really racy one, filled with sexual innuendo…which was weird because the product he was looking at wasn’t a sexy product. But the review was risqué and unusual enough, the kid got curious about who this reviewer was, looked him up and learned that he worked for my client’s company.

His dad, who wandered into the room, saw what he was doing and decided to call my client to give her a heads-up that her employee was spreading smutty reviews on the internet which might reflect badly on her company.

What should she do?

This is a really common problem. It’s common for celebrities who are caught saying something racist or doing something inappropriate and suddenly their television networks or sponsors or agents drop them like a hot potato. But it also happens plenty to your average Joe business owners. No matter how public it may seem, your employees have a right to Tweet about a bar, post, review, watch dirty movies, join edgy groups and all kinds of other things online as long as they’re doing it on their own time and not dragging your company into it.

On the other hand, there have been cases—like the one that reached the Supreme Court involving the City of San Diego and a cop who filmed himself stripping out of his uniform—that are declared “detrimental to the missions and functions of the employer.”

What if you’re in a business that depends a lot on reputation? Most non-profits, for example, or organizations that deal with children or private information would fall in that category. An HR firm would, too. Twenty five years ago, I was a teacher. Back then the theory was, you don’t want to live where you teach. You didn’t want to run into parents and kids at the grocery store with your cart full of wine. You didn’t want to hit the local bar in a strip center where the kids were hanging out nearby, or even go to an R-rated movie. Eek!

Nowadays, the world is your neighborhood. And if you live online, so do the people you’d rather didn’t know all your secrets.

So what do you do if you have an employee who is the object of revenge porn or other horrible comments, or who leads of a book club that specializes in erotica, or posts Yelp reviews that make him sound like an angry psychopath?

Okay, so here’s the deal. Everyone has a professional and personal life and a choice of what is public and what is private. The minute you join Facebook, you have chosen to make your life more public. The second you post a Tweet, you have decided to make a private thought public.
This is all pretty new territory for those of us who aren’t in careers and industries where public, professional, personal and private have traditionally been blurred lines. You can no longer have an expectation of privacy and anonymity even if you use a “handle” when posting a comment about the bad meal at a restaurant or complain about a flight attendant while on the plane (and yes, he was escorted off pre-flight).

That is basically what I told the business owner when she asked me how to approach her employee and what to say to him.

Yes, you can talk to employees about this issue. They need to be aware of the risks of venting their less PC thoughts and behaviors on the interwebs and the possible consequences. Does it mean an ethic or morality contract? Yes, they do exist in some situations. Does it mean banning employees from having a LinkedIn account? Nope, everyone has a right to be online. It means thinking, considering, getting advice and deciding what are the boundaries that work for you and your business. This is one of those areas that’s perpetually gray. We could say 50 Shades of Gray…but then that might get back to our clients….

If you could use help sorting out what’s private, what’s public, and what to do about your employees lives online or outside the workplace, call us.

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.


We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.