by Tanaz Irani (Spec. Hon. B.A, Pol.Sci.)

It is common and accepted knowledge that once users establish an account on any one of the numerous social networking sites available today, those users are making themselves vulnerable to privacy invasion in a number of ways. Earlier this year Facebook updated its policies on user generated content to allow virtually all uploaded material to be used by the company for advertising, marketing, or essentially any other purpose, even long after the user deletes an account. These policy modifications did not go unnoticed, and in fact were met with public complaint and threatened legal action. This ultimately encouraged the good people at Facebook to return to the older version of the policy; however Facebook is not the only entity that users need to be aware of in respect to privacy concerns.

More and more employers are using social networking sites as a tool to screen potential employees. With the multitude of recent layoffs, and economic hard times, employers are turning to such digital tools to help sort through the numerous applications they receive – weeding out those whose online profile does not meet the standards or desires of the company. Is this (very personal) background check fair? The truth is that outside Quebec, B.C, and Alberta, Canada’s invasion of privacy laws do not extend to information in the hands of private entities, so user beware!

There are a number of pros and cons involved in the question of social networking sites and their interaction with the corporate world. While employers are accessing and assessing the posted content of current and potential employees, complaints made by these individuals against companies for their hiring and firing practices, are on the rise.

It is worth mentioning the “Cisco Fatty” case (as coined by the Globe and Mail newspaper on March 23, 2009). When following a job offer at Cisco, a Twitter user in California sent out a “tweet”: “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty pay cheque against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.” In less than an hour, she received a reply -from a worker at Cisco- and word is she never got that fatty pay cheque.

Companies on the other hand not only can benefit from this watchdog potential, but also from the timely, financially-sound simplicity of socializing and networking via these sites. Perhaps a ‘poke’ on Facebook does not make the same impression as an expensive luncheon with a client, however it might suffice as a reminder to the client. Of course, it must be noted that such financial benefits are offset by lost productivity related to employees wasting company time surfing around, chatting with friends, stalking old classmates and taking part in innumerable quizzes, games, and various other applications. Heck, I may not be Twittering about it, but all the research and writing for this particular blog entry was done on company time! Is this lost productivity or will the ebb and flow of the digital corporate collision balance itself out? As an increasing number of people have quit smoking, could taking a social networking break be seen as the new smoker’s equivalency break?