Don’t Judge a (Face)book by its Cover
by studentuser1 on April 6, 2015 - 11:24pm
Spring break 2010, an open bar, and wild beach nights. Some seemingly harmless pictures are uploaded onto Facebook. Fast forward to the present, after graduation and on the job hunt. The interview was successful, but you don’t get the job due to those party-hard pictures that make them question your professionalism. This situation is a reality for many recent graduates, whose digital footprints from the past are resurfacing with real-world repercussions.
Social media is not only a medium for expression and creating connections, but has become a sort of extension of one’s identity into the virtual world. Human resource managers are utilizing this medium to review prospective employees, and monitor current workers to preserve a positive company image. This cyber-stalking blurs the line between private and work life, and brings to question the ethics of monitoring a person’s online presence which could place limits on a person’s freedom of expression and agency in the virtual world.
Once upon a time, work life and personal life were separate realms, but this is no longer the case as technology brought forth their marriage. According to a survey on Jobvite.com, 93% of employers check their workers’ Internet profiles before and during their employment. Given this statistic and the competitive job market, people are editing their online profiles to seem more attractive to hiring managers and gain leverage in any way. Image crafting has been a part of social media since its creation, but our freedom of expression is limited when we craft our profiles in fear of being denied a job or released.. Content related to illegal drugs and sexually explicit materials are obvious culprits, but the same Jobvite survey found that details, like political affiliation and grammar usage, could negatively affect a worker’s image. If content that is neither blatantly offensive nor directly related to one’s career is up for judgment, then not much is left for people to publish without the fear of being reprimanded by one’s boss.
From a deontological perspective, monitoring an employee’s online presence is not ethically sound, as the duty to protect humans’ agency is not abided by. If online surveillance became a universal law, the Internet would turn into a place of pretense, as people would not have complete agency in what they share. This statement is not advocating for a free-for-all community with absolutely no regulation, but as long as content is published with a motive that does not hinder their work, people should have the freedom to express their views through text, pictures, and video. So much of communication is now online; therefore, freedom of expression in the virtual world should be taken as seriously as it is in the real world.
Continuing with a deontological framework, online surveillance is not ethical if the superiors’ actions incite fear in their workers. If their motive is to find something negative about a worker’s online profile, then it could induce psychological harm if someone is, for example, fired because of an inappropriate post online. This digital witch-hunt is an abuse of power, as managers extend their power over a person’s virtual life, which should be separate from work life.
Although employers are not tampering with their workers’ profiles first-hand, their surveillance leads to self-censorship, which is when people control what they say to avoid criticism (Oxford Dictionaries). The indirect pressure that employers place on their workers by monitoring them violates Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, through any media (United Nations website). As the article states, expression should be allowed through any media, thus, people should have full freedom to use their social media profiles without the need to censor their posts and their superiors should respect this basic right.
The flipside to this argument does have its merits. Online monitoring could be a useful tool for managers to hire the right person for a position, as it provides insight on an applicant’s personality and cultural fit with the team. By keeping tabs on current workers, the human resource department would be able to maintain a positive image of their company. Also, whatever is shared on the Internet is available for the public to see, meaning that cyber-stalking is not infringing on anyone’s privacy. These arguments supporting the online monitoring of employees are valid, but they don’t justify the cases in which workers are reprimanded for content that is unrelated both in subject matter and time frame of their current employment. As long as the content posted online does not interfere with a worker’s performance, there is no reason that surveillance would increase the productivity or prosperity of a company. Like in the case given earlier, a party picture published five years ago does not depict a person’s competence, but rather, it makes online-surveillance seem like a professionally-acceptable form of making judgments by shallow stereotypes and assumptions about a person.
The debate on the ethics of online surveillance of employees will only grow in the future, as more people experience the impacts of their digital identity leaking into the work place. Managers should reflect on the ethics of monitoring their workers’ digital profiles, and reconsider their actions by respecting the boundary between work and personal life.