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Facebook Effect: For Workers On or Off the Job, Individual Rights Are Dead

| April 7, 2013

Your boss is in your head. (Jim Grant)

Your boss is in your head. (Jim Grant)

In 1764 the Genevan clockmaker Robert Covelle had the fortune of impregnating a woman not his wife and the misfortune to be sniffed out by the Genevan government. He was required to get on his knees and apologize to the government and to God. Absurd. But butting into the private thoughts and affairs of citizens was the custom of centuries. So were humiliating rituals.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive.com flaglerlive Covelle refused to kneel. Admitting to an indiscretion was one thing, genuflecting his apologies quite another. It took five years—and a little help from Voltaire—but Covelle won his case. The government abolished the genuflection ritual, and privacy’s sphere swelled a puff.

The American workplace is still waiting for its Covelle. Government has little sway over individuals’ private lives, but corporations’ presumptions on workers’ behavior on and off the job have more in common with the inquisition or with police states than with the bill of rights. Transgressors aren’t made to kneel, quite. But they’re routinely humiliated, silenced, censured or fired over speech or behavior companies should have no right to police.

The workplace has become a virtual panopticon. An architectural design that usually applies to prisons is now imposed on workers, within or without walls. Thanks to computer tracking, video surveillance, GPS, even those computer-chipped ID cards employees are almost always required to carry, bosses are all-seeing, all the time. Every key, mouse-click and email is logged, supposedly to ensure efficiency and prevent slouching, though it also does wonders to subtly if illegally keep track, say, of unionizing activity or whistleblowing. That’s when you’re on the boss’ time. What of when you’re not?

Let’s not confuse the matter. Employers can Google employees all they please. But penalizing an employee based on the results crosses the line. Absent the discovery of criminal activity, little to nothing gives an employer the right to discipline or fire an employee for doing or saying or writing something off the job—on Facebook, on Twitter, on a blog—anymore than that employer has the right to fire an employee because of her sex or religion or race. Yet it’s routine, whether it involves the firing of an employee by a Christian boss because the employee’s agnostic podcasts are discovered, the firing of a police officer because his wife posed nude, or the innumerable cases of people fired over Facebook indiscretions (Lindsey Stone posting an image of herself flipping the finger at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington comes to mind).

Let’s take a recent and particularly repugnant case—repugnant in every sense. Joseph Cassano is the son of New York City’s fire commissioner. He was a paramedic in the New York Fire Department, which doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation in the diversity department. Cassano had a Twitter account. He was fired over it. Here are three examples of his postings: “MLK could go kick rocks for all I care, but thanks for the time and a half today.” And: “Getting sick of picking up all these Obama lovers and taking them to the hospital because their medicare pays for an ambulance and not a cab.” And: “I like jews about as much as hitler #toofar? NOPE.”


Idiotic? Certainly. Offensive? Sure. Bigoted? Absolutely. But firing him for it is more offensive in every sense—not to the First Amendment, which shouldn’t be invoked here, but to the right of every employee to be left alone off the clock. Cassano did not do anything illegal. He did not speak those words in the conduct of his job. They are irrelevant to the conduct of his job, unless the department can document that his personal bigotry affects his performance. If every personally racist employee were to be fired, America’s unemployment rate would rival that of the Depression (when bigotry on and off the job was a national pastime).

It’s not just the small fry that pay the price. Executives are fired over affairs (whether the bebedded colleague reports to the executive or not), Tweets and other undue peeping at personal conduct.

Employers get away with the voyeurism because we’ve let them. They’ve blurred the line between home and work to their overwhelming advantage, re-becoming what government and church used to be, but are no longer allowed to be: overlords of conduct at the expense of personal privacy, its sphere reduced to a puffy illusion.

It’s not enough that workers’ pay is stagnant, benefits are eroding, job security is nonexistent and labor organizing is treated as firing offense.  The Bill of Rights now stops not just at the employer’s door, but at the employee’s, too, with little recourse in an economy that keeps workers on their knees by default.

I’m picturing Lindsey Stone’s finger again, in a more deserving context.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. This column is syndicated through Florida Voices. Reach him by email here.

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20 Responses for “Facebook Effect: For Workers On or Off the Job, Individual Rights Are Dead”

  1. brewhaha says:

    Excellent points, all, but you forgot to mention the long-standing invasion of our bodily fluids. That seems to have paved the way for all this other nonsense, don’t you think?

  2. Rich says:

    When do you suggest we draw the line between good and bad? How much more are you willing to bend over backwards for? Pierre, please show a modecom of descency here. You effuse the liberal left outlook so much it becomes offensive to the concepts of what is right and wrong at times. Take a stand for descency and the moral fiber of this great nation.

    • Jim R. says:

      Rich–Your effusions don’t make much sense in relating to this article. If we had strong and large membership in unions these invasions of privacy wouldn’t be happening.
      An excellent piece, Pierre

  3. devrie says:

    “Getting sick of picking up all these Obama lovers and taking them to the hospital because their medicare pays for an ambulance and not a cab.”

    I think that one deserves some attention. The guy is blatantly talking about not wanting to serve certain people. It’s related to his job, and therefore, it’s questionable to an employer.

    I know there is a potential wider audience for social media and the Internet, but I feel that if you wouldn’t fire them for overhearing them say it at a grocery store, you probably shouldn’t fire them for posting it online.

  4. Deep South says:

    Your behavior, integrity motive, lifestyle, beliefs, and rational thoughts have a tremendous effect on your performance at work, and how you interact with others.Facebook and Twitter are social networks, and you can learn a lot about an individual by reading their post. You work for me, you abide by my policies.

  5. FL informed voter says:

    Well written article that brings up excellent talking points. It’s a shame there is nothing we can do about it. So many workplaces now have policies that cover social media conduct that cover on and off duty. You can be disciplined for something you post on the internet. Is it wrong and should be protected by the Constitution? Absolutely. But, who wants to the be the person that gets disciplined or fired and hire a lawyer to fight for your job back? You will spend a considerable amount of money and time to make a wrong right that shouldn’t have even happened in the first place. I totally agree with your article, and feel like in some respects we are going backwards as a society.

  6. Sherry Epley says:

    Excellent article Pierre, as usual! A perspective that hasn’t been touched here is that the words posted on the internet are NOT private. These are not whispers in family circles. The analogy is more like writing an editorial or taking an ad in an Internationally circulated newspaper in the past. If you want your rights to “free” speech, then either keep your controversial thoughts off the internet or suffer the consequences of your documentation of your bad work attitude, bigotry, alliances with hate groups. . . what ever.

    As noted in other comments here, Yes. . . you do have the right to free speech., BUT, do you have the financial resources to defend that right, especially when you’ve gone so public with your remarks? The lesson that sorely needs to be learned is that the internet is NOT your private communication network. An understanding of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 should be required before anyone graduates high school. Yes, I know, good luck with that!

  7. A.S.F. says:

    Most people would define me as a Liberal but Cassano’s conduct is alarming–not just his words but his poor judgement on making such hate-based statements on a public forum when he has a job that requires him to serve the public, despite race, religion or any physical or other attributes that he might find objectionable. First question: Was Nepotism the reason that this guy has this position for which his own personality makeup appears to be in conflict? If so, that should be under investigation–something for he has only himself to blame. Second, how would YOU like to be dependent on this guy’s care, if you happen to fall under his definition of an “underclass”? We all have prejudices but some jobs require us to rise above them more than others. Cassano’s job description definitely falls in that territory. His own words would make anyone with a brain question whether or not he is fit for this job. I would say that he needs to be evaluated by someone who can accurately assess whether HIS personality, prejudices or problems might pose a danger to the public at large, especially in a pressured situation. Political correctness will not be an adequate excuse for any harm he might do to someone who is helpless and unlucky enough to find themselves in his care in a critical situation. Certainly, his family connections should not deter further investigation or action in this case.

  8. Bunnell resident says:

    @sherrey. I have to agree with Pierre on this one. Although his is an idealist view and yours smacks more of reality. Americans are longing for a forum to express their views and the internet is that forum. I would propose that as long as they are not affiliating with or identifying their employer online, they should be left alone to post what they please. Seems all too often the little guy is the one punished for expressing an opinion while celebrities in particular say anything without consequences. The oppositie thought here is that words have consequences. Look at how few people actually use their name even on this forum and it is obvious that we as Americans fear speaking our minds and being identified publicly. Cheers to Pierre for at least having the idealism of free speech. I rarely agree with him about anything but here he is spot on as to what America should be in regards to free speech.

  9. Doomer says:

    Lets hope we never lose electricity in this country. Can you image NO ONE being able to use their computers, smartphones, ATM, Gas pumps. Oh my ! What would we do ? Mass chaos…crime….water and food shortages due to no transportation. People walking around like zombies ! One massive solar flare pointed our way and…….Goodnight Gracie !!!!,,,,,Jobs would be the least of our problems.

  10. BW says:

    Pierre,

    The problem here I see is we forget that when we point the finger . . . there are 3 pointing back at ourselves.

    It is NOT enough to say that employers are invading my privacy if they view the objectionable content I posted, I have the employer’s name plastered all over my profile, and/or I’m posting publicly items that state I work for X employer and XYZ are my opinions. Freedom of speech is our right, but it is a right that does not come without consequences.

    You are totally missing the point that employees have the ability to not post who their employer is and the choice of what to post publicly and what not to. The case of the paramedic is exactly my point. His post about picking people up for rides to the hospital reflects directly on the paramedic department and whether tax payers paying for that service can trust to receive the care they deserve. The paramedic had a choice of whether or not to stand on the mountain and yell his thoughts at the top of his lungs (which is what he did). Should I walk into Walmart and yell every thought I have in my head and not expect repercussions from that? It’s the same exact principal. And it’s the principal our young people (and many adults obviously) need to learn quickly.

    You place blame in one direction, but need to recognize in almost all of these types of employer/employee cases, the employee has a great deal of blame to accept as well. You don’t walk out into public with the company uniform on, act like a nutcase, and not expect repercussions from your employer.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      BW, I agree with most of what you say, but there are distinctions. The freedom to say what one pleases has its consequences of course, always. But the question is: who has the right to impose those consequences? Why, for example, does a government have no right to censure your thoughts on a blog or a Facebook page, but a company you work for does? How is the company different than the government, other than in its presumptions? If someone walks into Walmart and yells out obscenities–or anything else that Walmart’s management would rather the person didn’t–it’s entirely in Walmart’s right to throw the person out, just as if that person were using his employer’s computers to spread any writings objectionable to the employer, the employer has every right to do with that employee as the employer wishes. But I’m referring to behavior and chatter beyond the employer’s walls. True, the paramedic has the choice to yell from the top of the mountain or not. But the point of our society is that it gives him the right to do that yelling, as long as he’s on his own bit of the mountain, not on anyone else’s property, grounds, or whichever way we might interpret the boundaries of free expression. True, the paramedic’s sayings on his Twitter wall could be said to reflect on his employer, but an employer could make that argument about any behavior, any sort of speech, anywhere, in any circumstance (and employers do all the time), and by that reasoning, carry the day. The paramedic could be that other employee who had religious views his boss didn’t agree with. The point is that an employer should have no say over those views, once they are spoken beyond the company’s parameters. We don’t belong to a company. Our ideas even less so, however repugnant they may be at times.

      • BW says:

        Great points, and this is where the conversation gets interesting because the question is . . . is any of this new? The reality is that it is not. It’s always been the case that if someone is out in public (even on their own time) and appearing to represent or obviously be associated with a company and act inappropriately – if it comes back to the bosses you are going to have repercussions or consequences. That’s not censoring. It’s holding people accountable who are irresponsible and casting a poor reflections on all who are also associated with that organization or company.

        You are correct that the company doesn’t own the person. Likewise, the company is also not obligated to keep the person around who is acting in a manner to be a PR nightmare for the firm. Likewise, a company has every right to do checks on candidates who they are seeking to hire. If that candidate chooses to air out their dirty laundry and disregard privacy settings on these services they need to accept they are at fault for not getting hired. Spying and hacking people’s accounts . . . yes, I 100% agree that is crossing “the line” but that’s not what we’re talking about.

        The news flashes in this area are often stories that really point back at the individual. Whoever hands over a password for their accounts without consulting an attorney is foolish. The person who “friends” their boss on these services is asking for trouble. Those who don’t take the time to learn the privacy settings are accountable for what goes out in public.

        Here’s the solution for everyone (just as my Mother taught me). . . behave yourself in public and mind your manners. Because when you are online on social networks . . . you’re in public. Why is that so hard for people to understand? Online is not really different than offline, but so many refuse to make that connection (no pun intended).

        This is a topic I think that really needs to be taught in the schools. Great great topic to discuss.

  11. Sherry Epley says:

    Prior to the Internet, where did people speak their minds? Have we become such an egocentric society that we each are compelled to blast our opinions and thoughts into the ether for attention, regardless of the repercussions on our reputations/careers, and on society, as a whole? When we use the “bull horn” of the internet, do we have no responsibility to communicate in a way that does not bring shame on ourselves, our family, our community? Or, is it that our civilization has deteriorated to the level that there is no consideration of civility, decorum, honor, respect, loyality, pride, professionalism, ethics, integrity. . . when we are exercising our right to speak our minds in public forum? Where should the boundary be between personal rights and issues such as public safety. . . and public respect, especially when you are employed in serving the public?

    Consider the possibility that the subject person here created a problem in his employment not from his words, (regardless of when they were published), but from the unprofessional and disgruntled “attitude” that motivated those words. All truly professional employees conduct themselves, at all times when in public, as a representative of their employer. This person acted against the best interest of their employer when evoking a negative attitude towards their employer’s clients/customers. Especially in these times of “cut to the bone” or absent “human resource” practice and procedures, employers/managers are left to using scraps of information from any source available to determine the “attitude” and “conduct” of their employees.

    Ladies and gentleman. . . the door to the “stage” of the internet swings both ways. When you “speak out” in such a public way, not only is your employer reading/watching, but so is your insurance company, your doctor, your lawyer, your accountant, your spouse, your lover, your minister, your children, parents, etc.. . . along with a myrid of government entities. Also, be aware that what you put out on the internet is PERMANENT. You could be damaging your chances for a high level career or marriage to a famous person, forever. If you need to “speak your mind”. . . please consider the possibility that a much less public and risky venue should be used.

  12. A.S.F. says:

    Pierre–I must respectfully disagree with your response to BW. Let me put it this way: Suppose your elderly parent was in the hospital. The name of the nurse who is taking care of your mother or father sounds familiar to you. Then, you realize why. You remember reading a facebook comment made by this nurse complaining about how these drooling demented slobs you have to take care of all day are driving you crazy and how tempting it is to just drug them up so you can catch a breather sometimes-why can’t they just have the decency to die already and give everybody a break? Maybe it’s just a sick joke made in the heat of a bad moment or the nurse in question is having a difficult day and is just blowing off steam…maybe not. How can you know for sure? Too bad they happen to be assigned to YOUR Mom or Dad! Be prepared to bunk in with your loved one during their hospital stay since your principles about free speech may prevent you from speaking about your concerns to anyone at the hospital who may have the power to help you protect your loved one’s best interests. In other words, it’s a different story when the ticking time bomb lands in YOUR backyard…just sayin’…There has to be some balance between principles, as they read on paper, and common sense, as it actually applies to our lives.

  13. Sherry Epley says:

    Right On BW and ASF! While I absolutely believe in free speech, there is a time and place for everything. In our massively changing world, this is an excellent topic of discussion. Pierre does a tremendous job in creating a forum for public awareness and raising social consciousness.

  14. Prescient33 says:

    We live in an “employment at will” state, and fortunately so do many of our brothers and sisters in the other 49. From the employer’s perspective that means it is free to terminate its employees for any reason, including no reason at all UNLESS the reason is one precluded by law, such as discrimination for race, sex, etc., or there exists a formal employment contract between the parties. The only penalty for an employer who terminates an employee for an arbitrary or capricious reason, if you can call it that, may be that the terminated employee is awarded unemployment insurance. Before anyone starts decrying a perceived unfairness in this arrangement, bear in mind it’s reciprocal-the employee is free to resign, quit, leave the job whenever he or she wants to, and again, for any reason, including none at all.
    What many people fail to understand is that the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights imposes limits upon governmental action only, not on the actions of the individuals and their private employers. (Some state constitutions do impose limits on private persons, but not FL’s.) Because of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, an employer may impose such restrictions upon your on the job and off the job activities as it wishes, including limiting or restricting one’s participation in social media. It is only when the restrictions are in violation of governmental statutes that an employer may not. As one example, and employer may not restrict you from from activities associated with your religious beliefs, such as engaging in a peaceful Pro Life or Pro Choice protest, since that might violate laws protecting individuals from discrimination on account of religion. On the other hand it most likely be able to terminate you you for parading naked in a PETA protest. Thus an employer is free to terminate its employees for what it, and it alone, views as objectionable postings or screeds on Face Book and Twitter, for what it, and it alone considers to be inappropriate You Tube videos, or for engaging in public protests it does not like; these are solely up to the Employer-because it is its right under our law. Does anyone contend that a restaurant need retain a server that has notoriously paraded through the streets of the community on behalf of a white supremacist group like the “Skin Heads?
    Remember, if you do not wish to be so restricted you are free to exercise the reciprocal right of employment at will, and leave to go elsewhere to work.
    Some argue against our system, but they should be careful of what they wish for, as the changes may have a pendulum effect, and shackle employees to employment they detest by limiting their right to quit..

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