It was just a passing comment, like something you would mutter to a friend during a long day at the call center.

“Another day,” she said. “Another 50 cents.”

Titters all around.

Only, the comment wasn’t whispered to a co-worker. It was posted as a status on Facebook. And it almost cost the workplace wit her financial security.

“My VP called me into his office and offered to cut my pay,” the woman from Windham says now of the experience. “It was around this time that I found out that the owner of my company went trolling through pages and pages of my Facebook, took clips of all the negative things I’d said and assumed they were about work.”

She was 36 at the time and had felt perfectly safe on Facebook before that experience. After all, her friend list consisted only of those she felt she could trust. The office was hardly a church pew, after all.

“It was a very casual atmosphere,” she says. “Explicit language, sexual innuendos, heavy sarcasm, from employees and the owners. So it’s not like I worked in an uptight atmosphere. They were afraid that I’d give off the impression they were bad to employees.”

Take a look around the World Wide Web and you’ll find endless stories about people who got in trouble for something they did on Facebook. Cops in full uniform posting photos of themselves hammered at parties. Slackers at baseball games on a day when they called in sick. Foul-mouthed boneheads bashing their bosses in all-capital letters and extra exclamation points.

Try to imagine a scenario for trouble, and chances are good it’s happened on Facebook or some other social networking platform. And it’s happened here in L-A.

One local woman, who, of course, doesn’t want to be identified, admitted she got into trouble when her boss posted a seemingly harmless photo of her on his Facebook page. A few mutual friends connected some dots, worked out a time line and discovered that the boss and the pretty lady in the photo had been having an affair.

“Good thing,” the young lady says now, “I didn’t post or mention some of the other pictures.”

Workplaces respond with policies

Which, of course, is just common sense. But common sense is a commodity in short supply, apparently, when people get to tapping out the details of their lives on Facebook. It’s only friends and family, after all. Who else is going to know?

Errant status updates, photos, pokes and even trading chickens on Farmville can cause embarrassment or cost a person his or her job. But the problem can be much deeper, experts say. A police officer can undermine the integrity of an entire department if he starts posting details about an ongoing investigation. Same in the health care industry, where chatting with friends about a case can mean an outright breach of confidentiality.

“The whole idea of patient confidentiality is really important,” says Kirk Miklavic, director of Human Services at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. “If you work in this environment, you get that. It’s pretty much a common-sense approach.”

Common sense, yes. But even so, the hospital has a written policy on the matter. They don’t forbid hospital employees from social networking all together – the decision makers at CMMC are wise enough to know how integrated Facebook has become in the lives of just about everybody. Their employees use services like Facebook to stay in touch with their families and, in many ways, to organize their lives.

“We support that,” Miklavic says. “But keep the hospital out of it.”

Police departments were among the first to create written policies on the matter. By and large, police officers are a young, energetic bunch with active social lives. They take pride in what they do and enjoy talking about their work. A slip of the Facebook tongue could lead to more than just embarrassment, it could bring about a lawsuit.

“We have an extensive directive concerning social networking sites,” says Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere.

The wording is simple. No Facebook use on the job, Joe Friday, unless it happens to be part of a criminal investigation.

“Employees are prohibited from using any social media or social networking platform while on duty, unless permission is granted for investigative or public information purposes.”

But what if an officer is off-duty and just wants to mug for the camera, flashing a badge or twirling a baton?

“The use of images by any employees depicting Lewiston Police Department property, equipment, or personnel, if posted on the Internet in a manner that demeans the agency’s core values, or violates any of the rules and regulations, shall be subject to disciplinary action.”

Similarly, in Auburn, if a police officer wants to post a photo of himself with his cruiser, his uniform, his sidearm or badge, he or she better run it by the chiefs first. That includes social networks as well as personal websites.

“We have a pretty stringent policy on personal website,” says Auburn’s Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen. “Any references to the department or photos with uniforms or equipment must be pre-approved before posting.”

The city of Lewiston has three pages of rules – the Internet and Electronic Mail Policy – that govern the way all city employees are allowed to conduct themselves on the Web. Auburn does not yet have one, although City Manager Glenn Aho implies that one is in the works.

So, if you don’t bash your employer, discuss details about a medical or legal case, or post photos of yourself with your gun, badge or the boss you’re sleeping with, you should be OK, right?

Not quite.

“It was a beautiful day out last summer and my assistant was stuck in an old dusty room archiving files and didn’t wanna be there,” says a local woman who works in a medical facility. “So she was just being silly and updated her Facebook status to say something like: ‘It is sooo beautiful outside. Can’t somebody please call in a bomb threat?’ Well, somebody did! Fire trucks, police cars, they blocked off a portion of Main Street. Needless to say, they fired her. Guess she got her time outside.”

The woman who called for a bomb threat wasn’t a kid too young to know better. She was a professional woman in her 30s.

Time suck

Even if a person can manage to keep comments clean, keep lurid photos under the mattress where they belong, and avoid providing clues to an office romance, Facebook and its assorted cousins can get you in trouble. Because chatting with friends, sharing photos and taking the “Am I Sexy Enough?” quiz every 15 minutes is all time spent socializing when you could be, you know, working.

A recent study by Nucleus Research reveals that 77 percent of American workers admit to using Facebook while on the job. What’s more, 87 percent of them concede that what they are doing on Facebook has nothing at all to do with their job duties.

An even newer study suggests that these employees will spend four hours out of each workday checking their various accounts – Facebook, personal e-mail, Twitter, YouTube, Yahoo groups, LinkedIn and various blogs. For you mathematically challenged, that’s half a work day. It’s a stat that makes you wonder how, as a nation, we get any work done at all.

Yet, Internet policies in the workplace are not as ubiquitous as one might expect. Employees at a pair of Lewiston-Auburn law firms had to check with their superiors to find out what they have on the books for policies of this nature. Turns out they have none at all. Same at a local accounting firm. Many bigger companies didn’t respond at all when asked about their policies.

Meanwhile, savvy Facebook users are taking pains to modify their online behavior before some corporate drone does it for them. They adjust privacy settings (see sidebar) so that only the people they trust can see their status updates and other activity. And they decline to add as friends co-workers and supervisors who might take offense at something they add to their page.

The woman at the call center, she of the “another day, another 50 cents” bon mot, says she’s super careful now after the close call following that remark.

“I deleted ALL co-workers from my Facebook that day,” she said, “and changed my settings.”

Just say no?

One recourse by employers that is becoming harder to consider is outlawing social networking altogether while on the job. Many businesses use Facebook, Twitter and other programs to promote business. They reach out to clients that way. Putting it away for good would be like throwing out the Rolodex or unplugging the telephone.

At a newspaper, for instance, Facebook is an increasingly valuable tool – almost frighteningly so – for getting in touch with sources, scrounging up feedback on a hot-button issue or tracking down background on a person in the news, such as a criminal suspect.

For these reasons, it would be difficult for a news organization to crack down on all use of social networking. The Sun Journal advises its employees thusly:

“Blogging and social media are important to our development as a multi-media company. But Sun Media Group employees must be aware of certain risks. Before posting to public blogs and social media, like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Digg and YouTube, or creating a website of your own, you must consider that your thoughts and opinions may have unintended negative consequences for you, your fellow employees or the Sun Media Group.

Very clear, very fair and easy to follow.

But just in case, if anyone should ask about those three hours we spent online chatting about spring training the other day, tell them I was grilling you – with interrogative skills the likes of which you’ve never seen – about a news story.

Do that for me and we’ll be friends forever.

Keeping yourself out of trouble

— Check your privacy controls regularly: Visit your privacy settings page to control who can see the information on your profile. The security settings on Facebook have come a long way since the site started. However, many people do not fully understand these settings, or don’t bother to check who has access to what. If you are going to use Facebook professionally you need to make sure you take the time to go through your privacy options. By default, Facebook makes your presence visible to the network you are in. Usually people aren’t aware of their visibility, so this is one of the first settings that employees should look into and customize their privacy and search settings.

If employees are looking for privacy, they should select the “Friends Only” option from the search privacy settings page, as this removes them from public visibility.

Also, employees should look into options to help them to control the visibility of their public search listing available to Google and other search engines. This can be controlled by simply un-checking the box next to public search on their privacy settings page.

— Create a customized friends list: For example, employees can create a Friend List for only their office colleagues and a separate list for friends that are family members, then apply different privacy policies to each group. Here, for example, workers may want their family — but not their professional contacts — to see photos from the Christmas party.

— Watch what you post at home: Many workers are unaware that mentioning their company in a negative tone on the Internet — even if it’s done on personal time at home — could lead to disciplinary measures. Usually organizations that provide their employees access to social media sites also invest in active monitoring services that scan every detail, comment and photo posted by their employees.

— Un-tagging photos: Randomly tagged photos/videos can be devastating. Some employees have been fired after incriminating photos/videos were posted for their bosses to see.

“There is no way to prevent someone from tagging a photo with either your username or your name as a tag,” says Amber Yoo, director of communications at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, but employees can prevent other users from searching for photos of them, she adds. Employees can visit their profile privacy page and modify the setting next to “Photos Tagged of You” and select the option that says “Customize.” Another solution is to set notifications within their Facebook account settings so that employees can get an e-mail or text message every time someone tags them. “This way users can immediately log in to Facebook, review the tagged photos, and untag them if necessary,” says Yoo.

— Do not reveal home address and birth year: Facebook offers users the option to complete their profile, listing their date and place of birth. This may seem harmless, but can be bait for identity thieves. And once an identity thief knows a user’s full name, date and place of birth, they have a lot of information that they can use to easily pull off an identity theft.

Yoo suggests employees just provide their day of birth — day of the week or day of the month — and not divulge information on the year or place they were born. Again, revealing the home address on a public forum is like “giving the criminals an authorized entry to your house,” she says.

— Be wary of linking to other social networks: Employees need to think about social networking holistically now. They need to have boundaries in place to protect their privacy. For example, employees need to pay attention when they are linking their Twitter and Facebook accounts, as both networks may serve very different needs. Twitter is more an “SMS” of the Internet where things have a tendency to go viral. So, employees need to pay attention and have a strategy to use these different social networks.

Also, Yoo recommends employees treat their tweets and Twitter accounts like their workplace, as now tweets show up on Google searches and are out there for everyone to view. She suggests workers to be careful in their message, especially when it can lead to damaging relationships with clients and business partners.

 — Learn your employee rights: Employees need to make the effort to understand their corporate policy regarding the use of social media at work and at home. Know the basic guidelines and direction to follow while using these networks and what information can or cannot be posted. However, most companies don’t yet have such social media policies in place. Only 19 percent of companies had specific polices to deal with social networking sites, according to a survey released last year by Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm.


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