Monday, April 4, 2011

One click to disaster: Ever moaned about work on Facebook? Or joked about your boss? It could end in a P45...

When teacher Sonya McNally posted a throwaway comment about her rowdy 12-year-old pupils on Facebook, little did she realise it would come back to haunt her.
The message, tapped out in reply to a colleague’s niggle about children at her school, seemed innocuous enough: ‘By the way, [class] 8G1 are just as bad as 8G2. LOL (laugh out loud)’ she joked sympathetically.
Within a few weeks, however, 37-year-old Sonya’s world had been turned upside down. Suspended from her job at Humberston Comprehensive School after another member of staff reported her, it sparked a chain of events that culminated in the Information Technology teacher, from Grimsby, Lincs, being sacked from the job she loved.
Sacked: Sonya's bosses failed to see the funny side when she commented on the behaviour of her pupils on Facebook
Sacked: Sonya's bosses failed to see the funny side when she commented on the behaviour of her pupils on Facebook
‘When I wrote that message, I thought nothing of it,’ she says. ‘There was no mention of the school anywhere on my account and I didn’t name any pupils. The only people who could see it were my family, friends and colleagues from the school. The teacher who reported me was a friend on Facebook.
‘She took my comment personally because I’d said it about her classes. But it was only ever meant to be light-hearted.’
Just days after posting the remark in March 2009, and before any complaint had been made, Sonya was rushed to hospital. There, doctors told her she’d suffered a minor stroke. While she was in hospital for a week, her aggrieved colleague put in an official complaint.
‘When I got home, I found a letter of suspension on the doormat. It was the first I knew of it. I couldn’t believe it. There was no mention of Facebook, just my “inappropriate behaviour”. They said I’d brought “the school into disrepute” and called on me to attend a disciplinary hearing.’



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Sonya, who was suspended on full pay, contacted her union, which took up her case. She was eventually told what she had done wrong at the hearing itself. The panel consisted of the headteacher, Sonya’s line manager and a member of the local council’s human resources department.
‘When they showed me a print out of the Facebook page, I almost burst out laughing.’ she says. ‘They said that I was bringing the school into disrepute and that the governors, parents and pupils at school could have seen it.

'They said I’d brought "the school into disrepute" and called on me to attend a disciplinary hearing'
‘I tried to explain that only those people I was friends with could see what I’d written, not the whole world. I spent most of the time trying to explain how Facebook worked, but they couldn’t understand.’
But while Sonya might have found the situation laughable, the reality is anything but.
Hers is a cautionary tale of the dangers of over-sharing on social-networking sites. And with the use of Facebook getting ever greater — the number of Facebook accounts held in the UK is now 30 million, around half of the population — her experience shows that even seemingly innocuous comments can have dire consequences.
In the past couple of years there have been more than a dozen cases of people losing their jobs as a result of careless typing. Thirteen Virgin Atlantic cabin crew were let go after labelling passengers ‘chavs’ on Facebook, while a travel agent in Coventry lost her job after talking about wanting to ‘smack’ one of her colleagues.
A young woman looking at Facebook
Status update: Be careful about how much you give away about yourself online (posed by model)
Even if you are careful to keep your profile private, as Sonya did, and allow only friends to see your comments, with the average user now having 130 so-called ‘friends’, comments within your circle can reach an alarmingly large audience. 
It seems that the more we use the internet, the less savvy we are to its risks. Even people in positions of responsibility, such as Sonya, seem blind to the consequences of posting personal comments online.
‘Even now, I still cannot believe that they sacked me for something so petty. I fail to see it’s that serious a matter,’ says Sonya. 
Two years have passed since she posted those words and the mother-of-three still hasn’t managed to find another job.
Stephanie Bon, a human resources assistant for Lloyds Banking Group, was fired last November after posting a message on Facebook saying: ‘LBG’s new CEO gets £4,000 an hour. I get £7. That’s fair.’ A colleague — she doesn’t know who — spotted it and reported her. The  37-year-old was unceremoniously sacked.

'I can't believe I've been treated so appallingly for what essentially amounts to a chat with my mates outside work'
Stephanie, from Colchester, Essex, had made the comment after hearing on the TV news that her bank’s new boss was being paid £8 million a year.
‘I was having to work extra hours and Saturdays because my pay was so bad,’ says Stephanie. ‘I live on my own so I have to pay the rent and the bills myself. I worked out what his salary would be an hour and I wrote the message. It was only on there for a few hours before I posted something else.’
But it was too late as it had already been seen and, understandably, her employers were angry to have their business slurred by one of their own employees.
‘My manager said she was disappointed in me. She said I was putting the company down. But I didn’t write anything that was confidential,’ says Stephanie, who now works as an administrator for a social services department.
‘I don’t regret it. Taxpayers have bailed out the banks and we’re still giving them bonuses. It’s outrageous and disgusting.’
It’s hard to argue with her logic, but ultimately she is the one now out of a job because of a thoughtless message.
For the past two years, employment agencies have been warning us that in today’s competitive jobs market, employers are using comments made on the internet to sack staff and find reasons not to recruit them. Yet the warnings have fallen on deaf ears.
‘People post things that maybe they shouldn’t, even years before they apply for the job but find that it’s difficult to erase from the internet,’ says Don Leslie, managing director of recruitment firm BLT. ‘If they’re savvy they can block access to what people see on Facebook and other sites. But while some are savvy, some aren’t.’
They include debts officer Kate Furlong who, when her employers the Royal Bank of Scotland announced huge job cuts last year, boasted on Facebook that she expected a large redundancy cheque. Instead the 23-year-old got the sack and no pay off.
Kate, from Telford, Shropshire, was fired for gross misconduct for writing that it was the ‘best news ever’ and that she would be getting a ‘nice payout’.
She says: ‘I can’t believe I’ve been treated so appallingly for what essentially amounts to a chat with my mates outside work.’

A survey of 6,000 Britons found 70 per cent of them check their social network site before going to bed
Paul Harrison, managing partner of social media agency Carve Consulting, believes that employees need to be given strict guidelines as to what people can and can’t say on their Facebook page.
‘Unless firms are explicit about how their staff use social networks, it’s unfair for people who are not internet gurus.
Facebook’s privacy settings are longer than the U.S. Constitution,’ he says. But on the other hand, surely it’s understandable that a firm takes action when they discover certain things being said on the internet.
So how can you protect yourself from making a potentially costly mistake?
‘If you don’t want someone to find something, then don’t post it,’ says internet expert Louis Halpern. ‘Take the view that once you’ve posted it, it is always going to be there.
‘Yes, you can use Facebook professionally and personally, but you have to be careful. Don’t let your professional contacts see the photos of you drunk that your personal friends can see.
‘As for Twitter, that’s different. Facebook is like a walled garden where you can control what people see but Twitter is completely public.
‘Be in control of your online presence. Get your own domain name and set up your own website. Have a LinkedIn profile with your CV and recommendations from contacts on there.’
But for Sonya McNally his wise words have come too late. ‘I used to put lots of personal status updates on Facebook, but I don’t do that at all now. I read what other people say and what they’re up to but that’s it. I’ve learned the hard way.’

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