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Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, says we should stop trying to separate our personal and professional lives, and share it all on social media. But she doesn't work where you work. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

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.

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.

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.

My research shows that not only are employers looking at what we do online, but they are also using that information in job decisions.

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.

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Tags: Law

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Adam Sinclair

    If you are a liberal in America you need to be VERY careful about what you do and say around people at work. Chances are your boss is a Conservative.

    Ms. Zuckerberg has no idea what she’s talking about.

  • dust truck

    Reminds me of a guy at a “motivation seminar” my office forced upon us all. The guy was like, “be great (like me!) and people will cooperate with you!” When we asked what to do if we had no choice but to work with difficult people, he said, “get a new job! It’s easy for someone great (like me!) to get a new job!”

    And management wondered why our motivation dropped after that…

  • amypondproductionscom

    If you believe in the existence of a private life, you should be on social networks ONLY with a fake name. If we advise young people to use a fake town, a fake birthday, why not adults too? Oh, and WBUR, this self-serving “advice” from Ms Zuckerberg does not qualify as news.

  • E. Martin

    To disagree with Ms. Zuckerberg is to assume that corporations cannot be trusted … oh, wait … (note sarcasm). Corporations have proven time and again that they cannot be trusted; the “bottom line” is infinitely more important than any humanitarian concerns. Moreover, what you post on social media is entirely subjective in terms of what an employer might think or do about it, so how can we even pretend to put boundaries around this? If a company feels that it has to keep such a close eye on its employees, then it’s operating from a place of fear, which probably means it’s a crappy place to work to begin with (this has certainly been my experience and observation).

    What we do in our personal lives is just that – personal! If an employee is not producing to a company’s satisfaction, then the company has the right to discipline or fire the employee. They do not, however, have any jurisdiction over what we do outside of work. In fact, employees that know they’re being “watched” tend not to express themselves, which ultimately leads to decreased creativity and productivity. So, companies that don’t spy on their employees will ultimately out-perform their tyrannical counterparts. It has always amazed me that the majority of managers in the workforce think that ruling with an iron fist is somehow better for the company than letting people be individuals and express themselves however they wish; it’s time for those managers to transcend their fears, or retire.

    The masses are beginning to awaken. A natural consequence of this awakening (among other things) is the banishment of fear – fear for our jobs in this particular example. When the majority of a company’s employees reach this point, they will no longer tolerate the abuses of business. Business will morph as a result, but the ones that don’t will become irrelevant and die a slow death – and good riddance to those companies!

    More and more examples of enlightened businesses are popping up all over the place, and you will see this when you become aware of it. So, repressive companies take heed: Your enlightened competition will crush you, so I suggest that you jump on the train that’s now pulling out of the station.

  • Frank

    “Progress has been made to address the growing trend of employers asking
    job applicants and employees for their Facebook passwords.” WHAT?!

    Is there really a growing trend of [potential] employers asking for applicants’ and/or employees’ facebook passwords…? This is terrifying (and should absolutely be outlawed)!

    I wouldn’t give that information to anyone — not my mother, not my closest friend — and not because I have anything particularly damning to hide. But if that’s considered OK, then what’s next? They ask for your library password and check-out history? Your bank password?

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