Facebook friend or Facebook fiend?

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In 2011 Facebook’s data team revealed that the average degree of separation between its users was 4.74 degrees.

In theory this means that every Facebook user is five or less steps away, by way of introduction, from any other user in the world. 

When you reflect on your Facebook ‘friends’, how many degrees of separation exist between you and your employer’s clients?

Can your list of Facebook friends ever be relevant to your employment?

A recent case in the Employment Relations Authority offers a cautionary tale on “friending” people that are work related.

Ms Schwartfeger was employed by the Ministry of Social Development for nearly 30 years.  As part of her job she provided customer services to client beneficiaries including the granting, changing and reviewing of benefit entitlements. The Ministry prohibits employees from accessing client records of family, friends and acquaintances.  Following a routine systems check, the Ministry claimed Ms Schwartfeger had accessed/searched client records of people known to her as a “Facebook friend”.  Two were clients, two former work colleagues, one friend’s husband’s niece and one the wife of a friend of her mother.  Ms Schwartfeger denied any wrong doing, claiming Facebook friends are not friends or acquaintances and all files had been accessed for legitimate work purposes.  Ms Schwartfeger later claimed she was a “Facebook novice” and that out of her 98 Facebook friends she only considered a handful to be real friends.  The Ministry did not accept her explanation and terminated her employment.

The Employment Relations Authority did not make a final decision on whether Ms Schwartfeger was unjustifiably dismissed, this will be determined at a later time. 

This case is yet another example of how an employee’s actions on Facebook can have repercussions on their employment.  It also serves as a timely reminder to employers who have concerns about the interactions their employees may have with their clients outside of work.  No doubt The Ministry of Social Development is now re-drafting their work place policy to provide a clear definition of who they consider to be a “friend” or “acquaintance” of their employees.

For further advice on how to address employee conduct outside of the workplace, see our Employment Law Team.