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Special Report on HR Technology: The Thought Police

March 6, 2011
Related Topics: Internet, Technology and the Law, Tools
You might call Max Drucker Big Brother's little helper.
He's president and CEO of Social Intelligence Corp., a startup that sells tools to help companies keep an eye on employees' and job candidates' words, relationships and other activity on Facebook, LinkedIn and the like. Drucker says monitoring workers online is key to enforcing social media policies and reducing liability in potential workplace violence or sexual harassment lawsuits.
Social Intelligence uses a combination of search software and manual content reviews to monitor workers to see if they've bad-mouthed their company or uploaded inappropriate photos of themselves. The software makes connections between people's names and other online identification, such as e-mail addresses and Twitter handles, to create a more comprehensive picture of a worker's online presence. Companies can filter search results by different topics, including corporate image disparagement, racist or other discriminatory activity, and potentially violent behavior. In a demonstration of the service, Drucker shows that the tools would flag an online photo of a worker holding an assault rifle.
Social Intelligence, which began selling its services in 2010, is part of a cottage industry offering monitoring tools to help firms navigate the new frontier of social media. Although these companies, with names such as Awareness Technologies and BitConfused, aren't well-known, they have the potential to significantly change the relationship between employers and workers when it comes to privacy.
Some technology vendors offer organizations greater ability to monitor employees on company computers; others sell tools for peeking in on workers no matter what device they use to post tweets or Facebook comments. Such power to monitor workers' social networking raises concerns about employment law violations, rankles privacy advocates and troubles human resources experts who fear Orwellian behavior could harm their companies' reputations.
"You have to really think about it," says Mike Dwyer, a senior consultant at Chicago-based advisory firm Aon Hewitt. "Should companies really use a tool like that?"
Thought crime?
Surveillance software could even prove damaging to employee morale. "People have a perception of Facebook that it's private," Dwyer says. He believes the best way to address the social media explosion is to talk with employees about the issues. Helping workers see the proper ways to present themselves online can make a difference, Dwyer argues, whereas surveillance software smacks of corporate intrusiveness.
A recent poll conducted by Dwyer through LinkedIn also indicates that employees are wary that bosses might stick their noses into workers' social media lives. Dwyer asked respondents if they would join their company's Facebook page under a variety of circumstances. Seven percent said they would join if it provided benefits information, and 17 percent said they would sign up if they could connect with employees globally. But 69 percent of the roughly 850 people surveyed said they wouldn't join because "Facebook is only for personal use."
When employees agree to connect to a company Facebook page, they do not automatically expose all their personal profile information to their employer. But Dwyer says difficult-to-navigate privacy settings at Facebook fuel mistrust about the social media site and ways employers may use it.
Employee monitoring has been around for years, ranging from physical surveillance to phone call recordings to, more recently, keystroke logging tools for tracking computer use. But the Web 2.0 era of social networking, the rise of telecommuting and the proliferation of Internet-connected smart phones have created a new landscape. People often work at home or spend time online using mobile devices. They also create Internet personas that can affect corporate reputations.
Even so, many companies aren't rushing to patrol their employees on social media sites. In a survey of compliance and ethics professionals, about half reported that their organization either doesn't monitor employee activity on social networking sites, hasn't had an issue with it or has a passive system in place. Another 14 percent of respondents didn't know who, if anyone, handled monitoring, according to the report by the Health Care Compliance Association and the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics. The report also found that nearly a quarter of respondents said their organization had disciplined an employee for social media activities.
While social media open up new possibilities for employee collaboration and customer engagement, they also carry risks, including computer malware exposure, embarrassing employee postings and old-fashioned time-wasting.
"There's a huge amount of social networking," says Chris King, product marketing director at Sunnyvale, California-based Palo Alto Networks, a network security provider. Much of the social networking, he adds, amounts to "social not-working."
Palo Alto Networks started selling network "firewall" products that focus on work computers in 2007, and has since attracted more than 3,400 clients worldwide. Much of the growth, King says, stems from companies' desire to get a better handle on employees' social media use.
While other network security tools guard against virus attacks or block access to certain sites, Palo Alto Networks says its firewalls can identify particular applications—such as Facebook and other social networking sites—and limit access to them so that only certain employees are allowed to post content. In addition, the technology can search outbound content to prevent the loss of sensitive data. For example, if an employee were to mention the name of a confidential company project in a tweet, managers would be alerted.
Los Angeles-based Awareness Technologies also offers heightened monitoring of employee activity on company computers. In contrast to traditional computer monitoring that notes sites an employee has visited on the Internet, Awareness Technologies' InterGuard application will record screen shots showing exactly what workers are seeing and doing on their computers, says Brad Miller, chairman and CEO. Those screen shots can later be played back by an employer in a virtual movie of the employee's computer activities.
If an employee, for instance, says he simply had his Facebook page open in the background of his work applications, InterGuard can verify the claim. "Anything they do on the social networking site would be captured," Miller says. "You can literally see what they did all day."
Last year, Miller says, a manufacturing client used InterGuard to catch employees talking on Facebook about planning a competitive business. The workers were fired. They then sued for wrongful termination. But InterGuard's data on how the workers were spending their time on company computers helped persuade them to drop their lawsuit, Miller says. Some monitoring tools look beyond company computers. Among them is BuzzDing, a software service from Oklahoma City-based BitConfused. Sandip Patel, CEO of BitConfused, portrays BuzzDing as a beefed-up version of Google Alerts. BuzzDing taps into a variety of social media sites using application programming interfaces to scour more of the "social Web" than traditional search engines.
BuzzDing tracks the names of companies and executives who might be quoted in the media. But the technology has HR implications, too. In the course of checking the "buzz" about a company, the service will find employee comments. "Every employee of your company has a voice on the Web," Patel says. "For large companies, it can be a huge liability."
Yet civil liberties advocates warn that such scrutiny can endanger privacy rights. "People don't have to live as hermits away from the workplace in order to have some expectation of privacy," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group.
One case that drew the ire of privacy advocates involved the temporary suspension of a Pennsylvania schoolteacher after someone else posted photos on Facebook of her with a male stripper at a bachelorette party. The American Civil Liberties Union took up her cause, and last year announced a settlement with the Brownsville Area School District. Indeed, computer and social media monitoring continue to raise increasingly thorny legal questions. In a recent widely watched case, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against an ambulance service for allegedly violating an employee's rights by firing her for posting negative comments about a supervisor on her Facebook page. The board claimed American Medical Response had overly broad rules regarding communications between employees.
In February, the board and American Medical Response reached a settlement in which the company agreed to revise the rules. The case is a reminder that employees have at least some rights to discuss working conditions online.
There's also the risk of discrimination lawsuits when companies learn too much about people's private lives. Consider the case of an employer reading blog posts about a job applicant's disabled wife and her health care needs. If the recruiter then decides not to hire the applicant, the candidate might claim he was unlawfully rejected. Similarly, if a company learned that an employee was pregnant by snooping on her Facebook page and then promoted one of her peers for a job she wanted, the employer could be liable for discrimination.
Vendors of employee monitoring tools defend their products. Miller, of Awareness Technologies, says workers should not expect privacy when using company machines. "Companies have a duty to protect their information," he says. "And sometimes that means being Big Brother."
Drucker says Social Intelligence reviews only public, nonpassword-protected sites. That includes much of Facebook and LinkedIn, where at least parts of personal pages are visible to the public. In addition, he says, the service strips out data that relate to protected classes of employees, such as race, age and religious views. For example, the photo of the worker holding a rifle would be presented to the company with the person's face and skin color hidden.
Drucker says Social Intelligence abides by the law in large part by having its employees—not just software—involved in each report. They ensure social media content actually relates to the person. The reviewers also redact any information that would violate equal opportunity employment law.
Even so, the sort of scrutiny Social Intelligence promises has raised fears that HR officials will become enforcers of "pre-crimes." Employees, that is, may be punished based on information that indicates they might misbehave in the future. In an essay last year on Datamation, a technology information site, columnist Mike Elgan portrayed Social Intelligence as part of a future in which workers will lose their jobs before they do anything wrong.
"When it comes to firing you, the company merely has to weigh the risk of a wrongful termination lawsuit against the risk of your predicted future behavior," Elgan wrote. "If the social network scanning, predictive analytics software of the future decides that you are going to do something ... that's inconsistent with the company's interests, you're fired."
Workforce Management, March 2011, pgs. 28, 30-31 -- Subscribe Now!

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