Businesswoman Randi Zuckerberg has been on the media circuit advising us to stop pretending we can separate our personal life from our work life — and to share it all on social networks. As founder and CEO of her own company and sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, it’s easy for her to say, but should we follow her advice?
I can see two very important takeaways in Ms. Zuckerberg’s suggestions. First, it seems she is attempting to normalize motherhood and parenting. This is a great idea. Second, she is advocating bringing your authentic self to work, another great idea and one that for me is a constant work in progress.
But as a professor of business ethics and employment law, I find her strategy unrealistic and unadvisable given legal and ethical realities of the workplace. As a practical matter, Ms. Zuckerberg views the workplace landscape from a lofty perch. She need not worry about getting fired for whatever she posts on line. Could she lose respect or customers? Sure, but she won’t lose her job.
The fact is that the vast majority of the workforce could get fired for what they post online. My research shows that not only are employers looking at what we do online, but they are also using that information in job decisions.
Is that fair? Maybe. Maybe Not. But it’s the workplace reality in this Internet and smartphone age. Is it legal? Usually. Courts in general treat online activities as if they were taking place in person. So that photo of you holding your gun and a beer, or crossing the marathon finish line, or of your darling’s First Communion or Bat Mitzvah are fair game. While there are federal and state discrimination and disability laws prohibiting using certain protected categories in any employment decision, once someone sees a picture it’s hard to disentangle that image from other qualifying factors.
There are some laws that can help employees. For example, the Stored Communications Act bars unauthorized access to stored electronic communications. This might be useful if someone surreptitiously uses your password to look at your Facebook page, but it won’t help when your Facebook friend at work shares your photo with the boss.
Progress has been made to address the growing trend of employers asking job applicants and employees for their Facebook passwords. Thirteen states have passed laws prohibiting employers from asking for this information. This signals to me a public need for protection and the fact that at least some employees are unwilling to share all of the details of their personal lives with their bosses.
Ms. Zuckerberg posits that there are two generations in the workforce: older executives well-versed in the wall between personal life and work life, and those more inclined to share their entire life on line. My experience, teaching both undergraduate and graduate business students, suggests there are many other people in the workforce: those of all ages who like using social media but want to keep at least some parts of their private life out of bounds from workplace eyeballs.