When Employers Track Your Lifestyle Through Internet Social Networks


You would have to be doing the modern day version of Rip Van Winkle to not be aware of the controversy Internet Social Networks are creating. Everything from MySpace and Facebook to YouTube and LinkedIn have gained in popularity over the past few years. These sites do serve a purpose and among other things provide their users with a sense of community often lacking in the brick and mortal world.

These sites create the habit and practice of sharing, be it videos and music or friends, business connections and ideas. These sites reflect the general and specific tastes of their users. They reveal lifestyles and sensibilities, behavior patterns and perspectives. Overall, such revelations are good things for they are the celebrations of social and culture diversity in an increasingly complex civilization. Social networks help people of like minded tastes find each other, even in distant cities or nations. Their interchanges I am sure strengthens interests in a variety of lifestyles.

But then in certain hands access to such personal information may not be such a good thing. According to a report on CNN forty-three percent of employers roam the Internet in search of insight into the particular lifestyles of current and prospective employees. While I must seriously wonder whether a full 43 percent of employers use Social Networks to review their job candidates’ personal lives, cyber prying calls a lot of ethical issues into question. One has to wonder, where does scrutiny become invasive?

There are other issues as well. One has to wonder how a candidate’s personal lifestyle has an impact on his actual job qualifications. Now surely if a candidate is a habitual substance abuser or has a criminal record or even write ups for sexual harassment or sexual assault, these practices can have a most negative impact on their professional behavior. A worker with issues concerning substance abuse or volatile or criminal behavior is hardly your ideal candidate. His off the job activities can most certainly be factored into his qualifications for employment.

But then his behavior is obvious and generally accepted as unfitting behavior in or out of the work place. But then there is the other character, the guy or gal who can do his job with great facility but has made lifestyle choices that are not necessarily keeping with mainstream corporate life. The candidate could be a spiritual creature, adroit in metaphysics, but they are the unacceptable type of metaphysics, the kind that can keep him from a decent job. Some companies may consider his beliefs “witchcraft,” for example, when, clearly, they are far from it.

We are all aware of onsite surveillance of the work place. We are aware of the video cameras and the probability your email is being monitored. We can be sure with relative probability that you’re playing around on overtly sexual or questionable website during the working hours is subject to discovery and possible embarrassment. You are almost certain to leave yourself open to scrutiny when you use your company credit card to purchases items of a more personal nature.

But then these are all work related issues. You are not supposed to be surfing the Internet, whether you are shopping or looking for romance. You are supposed to be working. You are supposed to use your business credit card for business. You have seen enough Governmental Investigative Commissions, and you have certain enough horror stories about email coming back to bite you where it hurts, and that using company email for intimate or private correspondence is just plain stupid.

Most companies have clearly stated policies against personal use and abuse of company email and instant messaging. There are also clearly stated policies against posting on your own blog or posting personal information on corporate blogs. And if you are posting personal information on a corporate blog, you have to be pretty stupid or harbor a very strong desire for self-destruction. And for those of you who are uncertain about company policy, I suggest you read your company handbook. So few of us ever do,

If you have any reason to show pause, perhaps these statistics will encourage you to change your ways. According to CNN, 26 percent of America’s businesses have fired employees for misusing the Internet, and another 25 percent have discharged employees engaged in the misuse of corporate email. That’s approximately one in four who are looking for work, thanks to their penchant for email and the Internet. Then, of course, you should consider that what you post on your email or leave up on your computer is subject to the scrutiny of your coworkers. They are all gossips, after all. Oh, I didn’t mean you. But consider this, if you pay you bills on the Internet or work out your social relations over the Internet, chances are you are a sidebar in the water cooler dialogues..

But as I wrote earlier, this is all the stuff you do in the work place. As the cofounder of a background checking service, I am used to hearing anecdotes from puzzled and troubled employers. Most HR Managers have legitimate grievances in voicing their concerns. Although you might not think it fair they your Human Resources Manger is expecting, more or less, a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, that’s how it is sometimes in this cold cruel world of ours. But then, this is all work related.

What about the things you do at home, things that reflect your lifestyle, your sexual practices, politics and buying habits? Is it fair that these personal activities are being assessed by your employer? From an ideological level, it is really known of their business. From a realistic level, people will pry when given the opportunity. Visitors will sneak a peek inside your medicine and employers will read your page on My Space. It isn’t fair. But it is the reality.

I would love to advise you to resist these intrusions, to stand up for your rights and to fight tooth and nail against these invasions of privacy. But then this is the real world and you have to do those petty things like eat and pay the bills. You need the job, and more often than not the job needs you, even if your bosses have a bewildering way of showing it. Besides, if it is possible to monitor someone’s behavior and lifestyle, then the greatest probability is that your employers will continue to look into your life. Once the proverbial cat is out of the proverbial bag no one is motivated to try to stuff it back in.

In the end it’s safe to say that must of you for the most part live clean and decent lives that when combined with a little bit of fun and different interests make you unique but hardly a threat to society. As for those of us who live more esoteric lives is enough to satisfy most bosses who already know this about you anyway. Let’s face it, in today’s world of branding and segmentation there are few out there who don’t wear their behavior and beliefs if not on their sleeves then in their jeans or khakis. We are social beings, in the office as well as on the Internet, and what we like and dislike is pretty obvious to those around us.

As for the few surprises out there, perhaps they should be discovered before they disrupt the workplace. There are, after all, substance abusers, office thieves, sexual deviates and for that matter psycho killers who went undiscovered until the damage was done. Only then did we learn what percolating under the guy who was, otherwise, “quiet and kept to himself.”

So there is no real answer as to how to remedy employers spying on their workers. We could pass laws, but laws, as they say, are made to be broken. We could complain; a lot good that will do. Or we can realize it’s our life anyway, we only live it once. Live it well and take your chances. The chips will fall where they may. Remember, there is nothing worse than being boring. Almost, anyway.