Spend a few minutes on Facebook, perusing the public profiles of young workers across town, and you can get a peek at last year's UNC Chapel Hill fraternity formal, last month's Halloween costumes or last Saturday night's party.
One Wachovia employee's photos show the man and his friends doing shots and singing karaoke, drinks in hand. On another profile, a Duke Energy worker is mud-wrestling at a college fraternity party. In a co-worker's album, titled “Random nights, crazy days,” there's a photo of women riding a mechanical bull at a bar.
Social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, are peppered with examples of young adults being, well, young adults. The activities may be legal – but many of the sites are also public, meaning they're easily accessible to strangers, co-workers and potential employers.
News last week about the Facebook postings of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers drew headlines. But private companies, too, have started taking a much more active interest in what their employees do outside of work.
The line between private and work lives is blurring in an era where blogs, social networking sites and party photo sites are increasingly popular.
Employers are scanning the Internet for information on job applicants and even checking up on existing employees. Companies worry about photos showing drug or alcohol abuse, racially offensive comments and revealing clothing – anything that could damage a company's reputation.
“Your corporate image is a very complex thing, and everyone who is a part of your company has a piece of that,” said Adam Bernstein, a principal at Carolina Public Relations in Charlotte. “Now, there are much steeper hills to climb in managing all those different channels, but the principle remains: Your reputation is being evaluated by a lot of different angles and a lot of different people.”
The public relations firm doesn't have a specific policy on Internet postings; nor does it monitor employees' pages, but it does have guidelines that make it clear that employees are held accountable for anything that surfaces online, he said.
And while there's no hard and fast ruling on what is and isn't appropriate, “it's like the Supreme Court ruling: I can't really define what's obscene, but I know it when I see it,” Bernstein said.
Consequences of openness
Internet-related issues at work are nothing new. At one time, employers limited their workers' Internet access almost completely, certain they'd spend the day shopping or visiting lewd Web sites.
In more recent years, companies have fretted over e-mail, disciplining employees for forwarding too many jokes to friends or griping about their job or colleagues on company time.
Still, while at-work activities were fair game, what happened at night and on the weekends rarely made it back to the boss, mostly because companies just didn't have the resources to thoroughly vet applicants or employees, said Benson Rosen, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Only workers who had a criminal record, appeared in scantily clad poses in magazines or had committed some other well-known offense were in danger of not being hired or being fired.
Now, information about workers, their friends and how they spent their weekends is “two clicks away,” Rosen said. There are blogs, social networks such as MySpace and the 120 million-member Facebook and even sites such as Lazyday.com and Carolina Nightlife.com, which post photos of Charlotte-area bar patrons at hotspots around town.
About one in five Americans – and two-thirds of Americans ages 18 to 29 – use social networking sites, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Not to mention, today's young workers are willing to share a lot more than their parents and grandparents were, Rosen said.
“The current Generation Y has different views of privacy than generations past,” he said. “They're quite a bit more open, and sometimes they don't realize the consequences. Sometimes, people who engage in indiscretions when they are 16 or 17 find it comes back to haunt them when they are 21.” According to a survey taken last week by The Employers Association, a Charlotte-area human resources consulting firm, 12 percent of companies surveyed have monitored employees or applicants' social networking sites.
Michelle Fish, CEO of Integra Staffing & Search, a Charlotte staffing agency, said she always checks Facebook and MySpace before interviewing applicants.
“If I saw something on the Internet that was not favorable, I wouldn't even want to do the interview,” she said.
Fish usually scans the person's list of friends, looks at Facebook “wall” messages and studies photos. She has never turned away an applicant after a search, “but I have seen things on Facebook that made me say, ‘Wow,'” she said.
Fish has also looked up her daughter's teacher and even clients and competitors.
“I did see a competitor on Facebook that was tagged in a photo at a party,” she said. “It looked pretty wild. I couldn't believe it. … Anything you do, you should do with caution.”
Local workers say they're careful about how they use social networking sites.
Ashley Dewitt, a graphic designer at the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, joined Facebook to promote a charity event she was working on and has since used it for similar events.
She has a few photos on her site, mostly of a recent vacation with her boyfriend, but Dewitt, 30, scoffs at posts from old acquaintances depicting drinking and partying, she said.
“It's like, aren't you a little old to be putting up stuff like that?” she said. “… You still want to be respected.”
Other workers, who use the sites to communicate with friends and share photos, say they implement privacy restrictions. Facebook, for instance, allows members to block their profiles to anyone who isn't a Facebook “friend” and place people on a “limited profile” list that hides photos and other information.
Robert Smith, 25, who works at Wachovia, said he uses the privacy tools because “that's what would keep work off your back.”
He thinks it's wrong for employers to discipline workers for legal activities outside of work – but he knows it happens, he said. Smith said a friend of his interviewed for a job and lost out to another applicant because the interviewer checked his Facebook page and saw photos of friends drinking.
Co-worker Anand Chauhan, 24, has a friend who once beat an equally qualified applicant for the same reason, he said. Chauhan is looking for a new job himself and has been “un-tagging” photos of himself on Facebook, including a shot from a Chapel Hill bar with just too many plastic cups of beer in the frame.
“Some stuff is funny, but you'd be embarrassed if your employer saw it,” he said.
In some cases, employees are not only embarrassed – they're out of a job. One CMS teacher faces firing for posting what could be considered racially insensitive comments on her Facebook page, and four others have been disciplined for postings on the Web site.
In North Carolina, most employees are considered “at-will” workers, meaning a company can discharge them for any reason, as long as it's not discrimination, said Stephen Dunn, an employment attorney with Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn in Charlotte.
That means it's legal to fire an employee over a Facebook post, though Dunn doesn't advise a zero-tolerance policy, he said.
The blurring boundary between the personal and professional life worries some people, especially in cases where companies are checking up on longtime employees with a proven track record.
“It poses a threat to employees' privacy,” said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit education and advocacy group based in California. “What occurs outside the workplace should have no bearing on what happens inside. But it does.”
Most companies have employee handbooks with detailed policies about e-mail and Internet use, though it's rare to see specific mentions of Facebook or MySpace, said Kenny Colbert, The Employers Association's president. He expects that to change.
“Whenever there's a news-catching headline, companies take a look at their policies,” he said. “I imagine quite a few will be pulling out their handbooks and tweaking them.”