Internet conduct can trip up some employees
Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, IPhone, Blackberry, friends, instant messaging, blogging - software and hardware for communicating on the Internet change rapidly. At home, school, on the job, and anywhere in the world in between, people can communicate with each other easily and quickly, using nothing more than a cell phone.
But that speed and convenience brings new challenges and risks. This is particularly true with social networking sites that allow a person to maintain a form of electronic diary viewable by a wide audience.
As a matter of routine, employers now search sites like MySpace and Facebook to see what they reveal about prospective employees. And what a person reveals, and how he or she reveals it, could affect a current job or future employment prospects.
Social networking sites pose unique challenges for professions where conduct outside the workplace, even when it occurs on a social networking site, can have significant consequences. That is particularly true for policing and education.
A recent story published in the New York Times (March 11, The Officer Who Posted Too Much on MySpace) described how comments by arresting police officer Vaughan Ettienne on his MySpace page were used to undermine the prosecution's case against a man charged with carrying a loaded gun. In effect, the defense used Mr. Ettienne's so-called trash talk to undermine his credibility.
Just as casual conversation, even when in jest, can be overheard in public, an electronic forum like Facebook provides no guarantee of privacy despite settings intended to allow only people designated as "friends" to view posted pages.
Recently, Oak Buffs police chief Erik Blake received an email from a man who claimed to be a Facebook "friend" of a mainland police officer. The emailer was concerned that an exchange he read among two mainland officers and an Oak Bluffs officer, who he said he did not know, joking about how to avoid jury duty reflected poorly on the officers and their departments.
The emailer said he was concerned about how the next generation of police officers was using this new medium and where it would lead.
Chief Blake told The Martha's Vineyard Times that department policies cover any conduct deemed unbecoming to an officer and he has reminded all department personnel that conduct includes social Internet sites. "It is an emerging issue," said Chief Blake.
In his response to the emailer, Chief Blake said that the department's core values are paramount and must guide every officer's conduct. He said police officers are held to a higher standard and must be aware that conversations, even those characterized as whimsical, can be viewed as offensive.
Lieutenant Tim Williamson said he would be updating the department's personnel policies to reflect the changing technological landscape.
Island education leaders are also grappling with the issues raised by social networking sites and the ease with which electronic conversations can be easily made available to a wider public.
Last month, James Weiss, Martha's Vineyard superintendent of schools, updated the system's staff ethics guidelines. The document, which is intended to be advisory, describes behavior policies inside and outside of school.