- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 27, 2009

A gap is growing between workers and employers over social networking and other Internet behavior.

On the one hand, a series of notorious videos, including one involving a pizza joint and bodily functions, is prompting more concern among employers that workers’ behavior online can harm their businesses.

But the reaction that forced a Montana city to back off its request for the log-in information of potential employees indicates there is still some information people feel entitled to guard.

Deloitte LLP’s 2009 Ethics & Workplace Survey, released in May, found a big gap between employers and employees on whether businesses should be able to monitor Internet behavior off the clock.

Sixty percent of the business executives surveyed said they had a right to know how their organizations were portrayed by employees in online social networks, as opposed to 53 percent of employees who said that information was private. Although the majority of employees said the information was private, an even-larger share - 74 percent - said it’s easy to damage a company’s reputation on social media.

More than half of the executives surveyed said that reputational risk and social networking should be a boardroom issue, but only 15 percent of them follow through with discussing it at meetings.

The study, which measures employee online behavior and the impact it can have on a business’ reputation, surveyed about 2,000 employed adults as well as 500 business executives in April.

Defenders of monitoring employees’ online behavior point to several recent notorious cases, including “viral,” or massively viewed, videos of workers at two of America’s top fast-food chains and a group of individuals purporting to be police officers responsible for guarding America’s lawmakers.

It was only two months ago that U.S. Capitol Police investigated claims that its officers were participating in online groups that posted degrading references to women and glorified excessive drinking. A handful of officers purportedly involved in the offensive groups blocked or deleted their sites as a result.

In April, two North Carolina Domino’s Pizza employees were fired for contaminating food and kitchen utensils, appearing to sneeze on them, among other things, after posting a video online about the prank.

Tim McIntyre, the company’s vice president of communications, said the videos were discovered by Domino’s social media team within 45 minutes of their posting. Nevertheless the videos quickly went viral and reminded many companies that employees’ online antics can damage their brand.

“We’re not going to distrust 180,000 employees because of these two,” Mr. McIntyre said. “What the experience out of North Carolina did for us was reinforce some of the things we had always believed: You’re in a customer-service business, and you have a very unique level of trust with consumers all over the world. You need people who will represent your brand with integrity and honesty.”

Domino’s also is teaching franchisees how to be involved in the social-networking world.

“When you represent yourself as the brand, that becomes an issue,” Mr. McIntyre said.

Last year, a handful of Ohio Burger King employees were fired after videos surfaced online of one person taking a bath in a kitchen utility sink as the others watched.Representatives from Burger King’s public relations department did not return requests for comment.

Despite what happened to Domino’s, Mr. McIntyre said his company is not actively searching employees’ Web sites.

However, corporate policies have changed somewhat, in that they are becoming more vigilant.

Domino’s President Patrick Doyle created a video detailing how auditors are now in stores every day checking for cleanliness.

Guidelines were created for store owners who are being encouraged to participate in social-networking sites - not only to make themselves more local to customers, but to help monitor how the brand is being portrayed. The company also has a number of Internet search programs perpetually searching for references to Domino’s.

But city officials in Bozeman, Mont., acknowledged last week they went too far with employee background checks when requesting that applicants provide their private information involving social-networking sites. The Bozeman City Commission voted to eliminate the practice earlier this week.

City Manager Chris Kukulski apologized for the request, which he said had “exceeded that which is acceptable to the community.”

Candidates who were selected for city positions were asked on their criminal background and reference-check application to supply their usernames and passwords for Web sites such as Facebook or MySpace.

“I think it was a mistake to expand it beyond public safety,” Mr. Kukulski said. “I take full responsibility for that decision. There is a different standard for background checks for certain positions.”

The city’s request also raised privacy concerns for applicants as the user’s friend pages can be accessed and violates some privacy policies users agree to follow when signing up for an account.

Facebook’s terms of use state that users “will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.” The terms and conditions for MySpace.com state: “You agree not to use the account, username, or password of another member at any time or to disclose your password to any third party.”

Rebecca Tushnet, a Georgetown University law professor, said employers need to respect a worker’s right to privacy and that the “greater volume of information simply provides more opportunity for things to go wrong.”

“If you do that job well, then there’s no need to know what kind of person you are at home,” Ms. Tushnet said. “Eventually, we’ll get back to that place where people can recognize there is a public person and a private person.”

Mr. Kukulski said no information had been leaked.

“The folks who were doing this for us deal with sensitive information; they have ethical standards they stand up to,” he said. “No information has been compromised in that regard.”

However, not even FBI applicants vying for top security clearance positions are required to fork over their usernames and passwords for these Web sites during their background checks, said Bill Carter, FBI spokesman.

“If it came up that an individual may have some issues in that regard, it could come up, but not as a policy or general rule do we require that type of information from potential employees.” Mr. Carter said.

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