Should Big Brother — or employers — be watching social media?

Social media sites make a lot of information available to prying eyes

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Social media is a regular part of life for many people. Advances in technology have led to a wide array of devices that can connect to the Internet — even a refrigerator can link up to the web.

All that connectivity, combined with the proliferation of social media sites that allow people to interact and post things for all to see, makes it easy for people to have a presence online. It has become a common practice for someone to “google” someone else to find out about that person.

But what about employers?

It’s pretty easy to find information about most job candidates (or current employees) online. Some people have accounts on multiple sites like Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and others. There’s bound to be something for Internet surfers to see, even if the individual is using privacy settings to block certain information. But if the information isn’t blocked, is it in the public domain?

Many people aren’t aware of what information is and isn’t protected on social media sites — the default settings may not match their expectations or they may not know how to adjust the settings.

If someone is unwittingly sharing information on a social media site, is that public information? Or should social media sites be treated with some expectation of privacy? Should sites like Facebook be kept strictly in the social realm and only sites specifically designed for business purposes — like LinkedIn — be referred to by employers?

If an employer stumbles upon information, whether in text or pictures, about an employee or job candidate on a social media site, what should it do? Once the information is viewed, it’s hard to forget it. Or should employers completely avoid social media sites so they don’t see something an individual probably doesn’t want them to see? After all, once the information is seen it might be hard to prove it wasn’t used in some way. Employers got along for a long time without being able to perform background checks via social media. Should they need to use it now?

On the other hand, there have been instances in both Canada and the United States where employees posted derogatory and even threatening comments about their employers and co-workers on Facebook. If an employer learns about something like this, does it have a right to check out the employee’s social media account? Does such online activity supersede any expectation of privacy by the employee, once the employee willingly brings the employer into it?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit

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