Supervisor’s online snooping raises questions about privacy
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Supervisor’s online snooping raises questions about privacy

“Let’s make no mistake about why you terminated my client,” plaintiff’s attorney Sue Moore said. “Ryan Henderson was fired because he set up a website where employees of this company could talk about work.”

“People didn’t use the site to do anything but slam their managers and co-workers,” supervisor George Thompson responded. “The company has a right to protect its reputation and image.”

“And how exactly did you gain access?” Sue asked. “The site was a private chat group where members had to register and needed a password to log in. It wasn’t open to the general public. Did you use a false ID to register?”

“No!” George said indignantly. “An employee voluntarily gave me her password.”

Under duress?
“Lisa Steinberger handed her password over only after you – her supervisor – bullied her into it,” Sue shot back.

“No, I asked Lisa if she would give me her password so I could look at the site,” George said. “Lisa didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to.”

“That’s not what Ms. Steinberger said,” the attorney replied, opening up a folder. “When asked why she didn’t refuse to give you the password, she said, ‘I felt that I probably would have gotten in trouble.’ Ms. Steinberger later told a co-worker that she wished she hadn’t done it.”

Sue continued, “Then, using her password, you monitored Ryan’s chat group over the next few weeks.”

A right to know?
“The company has a right to know about these things,” George insisted.

“You also gave Ms. Steinberger’s password to several other managers, all of whom logged on to the chat group as well,” Sue said.

George said nothing.

“Then you confronted Ryan about the chat group and he offered to take the site down immediately,” the attorney said. “But you still decided to fire him that day. It should be interesting to hear what the jury has to say.”

Did Ryan win his lawsuit alleging privacy violations?

The decision
Yes, a jury found in Ryan’s favor, concluding that supervisor George intentionally accessed the chat group without authorization. Employers are allowed to protect their reputation, the judge said, but George went about it the wrong way, by:

  • covertly monitoring the website without speaking to Ryan
  • pressuring Lisa into releasing confidential information about the site, namely her password, and
  • sharing the password with others.

While employers have certain rights regarding what is said about them online, employees also have rights – to privacy, and to certain discussions of workplace conditions.

So supervisors must be careful about how they enforce the company’s rights. Check your social media policy, and/or consult HR, before taking disciplinary action.

Cite: Pietrylo v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, No. 06-5754, D. N.J.,. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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