Creepy Privacy/Employment Decision in the UK

I just picked up on this story today, and I have to say it kind of creeps me out.

The gist of it is that an Apple Store employee in the UK posted some disparaging remarks on a private Facebook page (I’m not sure what “private” really means in the context of Facebook, but that’s a different issue). Someone (a coworker I believe) saw the post, printed it out, took it to the store manager, who then fired the poster. The UK Employment Tribunal upheld the firing.

A critical component of the story is that part of Apple’s employee indoctrination includes specific prohibitions on posting anything negative regarding Apple (the company, it’s employees, or it’s products) on social media sites. So the employee presumably understood that this was a condition of his employment, and he presumably understood that what he was doing was a career-limiting move.

What’s disturbing to me (ignoring the creepiness of Apple’s social media policy for now), is that the Tribunal cited the fact that even though the employee took precautions to make sure his post wasn’t public, the fact that “Once posted, it will be difficult to show the necessary degree of control over Facebook comments as—by the very nature of the Internet—these may be copied and passed on with ease.” was part of the reasoning that the termination was “justified and proportionate”.

My inner Libertarian doesn’t see a problem with this situation… it was a voluntary contract between two parties, the employee understood the terms of employment and violated them, and got fired. That’s how things should work. But the fact that the employee took steps to keep the post private, and it was still considered a public post, gives me the chills. Think about it… his coworker consciously subverted the security mechanisms in Facebook by printing and distributing the post. I assume that cutting and pasting it into an email would have been legally equivalent. What if the employee had simply complained about Apple in an email to his dad, and his dad forwarded the email to a friend, who then forwarded the email to the store manager? Wouldn’t that essentially be the same scenario? Maybe the Apple employment rules specifically define what social media is, but it’s no leap at all to include email in the social media category and emails are just as easy to copy as private Facebook posts. I guess that is the nut of the problem for me. The employee used the available mechanisms to keep the post private (i.e. making it non-social), but that doesn’t matter. The fact that even private Facebook posts can be publicized by printing or copy-and-paste seems to be what made the firing appropriate.

I can’t help but think that the PR fallout of this event will grossly outweigh any negative publicity from a practically invisible post on a private Facebook page. Then again, public opinion (as represented in comments posted on news pages) seems to be running strongly in favor of Apple, with the primary thought being that “if you hate your job, you should quit and get another one.” In the era of nominal 9% unemployment, that seems particularly harsh. Maybe Apple has mobilized the faithful to make sure this doesn’t turn into a PR nightmare.

You can read more here, hereand here.