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SOCIAL MEDIA

Would You Suspend an Employee Over a Status Update?

A university professor's Facebook postings got her suspended -- and show you can't be too careful when it comes to social media.
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If you're thinking hateful thoughts about your colleagues or clients, don't post them on your Facebook news feed – no matter how secure you think your privacy settings are.

Gloria Gadsden, an associate professor of sociology at Pennsylvania's East Stroudsburg University, has been put on indefinite paid leave for what she thought was a funny Facebook update about hiring a hit man.
 
"Does anyone know where I can find a very discrete hitman? Yes, it's been that kind of day," Gadsden, 42, wrote in January. Another status update in February: "Had a good day today. DIDN'T want to kill even one student. Now Friday was a different story."  She removed the second comment, but was nonetheless suspended after a student tipped off university higher-ups. (East Stroudsburg doesn't have a policy of monitoring faculty social media, but a university spokesman said: "Given the climate of security concerns in academia, the university has an obligation to take all threats seriously and act accordingly.")
 
Gadsden, who's worked at the university for five years, says school superiors cited the Amy Bishop case – where a biology lecturer allegedly opened fire at the University of Alabama after being told she would not be granted tenure – in suspending her.
 
"They found two posts, linked them together and are suggesting I was a threat," says Gadsden, a recent convert to Facebook (she has just 32 friends), told Pennsylvania's WNEP TV. "I told them I was venting. They're family friends and it's a private page."
 
Gadsden specifically chose not to friend students, but thinks an update to Facebook's software altered her privacy settings and allowed friends of friends to read her musings. 
 
Type "Facebook" and "fired" into any search engine and you'll get an ever-growing list of people who've stuck a foot into the wide-open mouth that is Facebook – and it's cost them dearly. A 2009 study by Proofpoint, an Internet security firm, found that 17 percent of companies report having issues with employees' use of social media, and 8 percent have actually dismissed someone for their behavior on those sites. In the previous year's study, just 4 percent were fired for their social media sins.  

All a good reason to check and re-check your Facebook privacy settings – or better yet, to confine any nasty work-related thoughts to offscreen conversations (preferably not within earshot of their subjects.)
 
After all, Gadsden thought she had an iron curtain between her professional life and her Facebook life. "I actually did see that page as something that was not a part of ESU, not a part of my professional life," she told USA Today. "I don't invite students into that part of my life."  

What was she thinking posting about wanting to kill a student? She was joking – she had a smiley face after the comment – and followup comments from friends suggest they understood the comment as humorous. (One said she was ROFL, or rolling on the floor laughing.)
 
Gadsden said: "I had had a really bad day on Friday and then Monday went well and I was excited that it went really well. It was not intended to threaten a particular person, not directed to any student. Sometimes teaching is hard and exhausting work. Sometimes we don't get support for that so we vent with family and friends and that's all it was." (For some other Facebook faux pas, click here.)
 
The university is conducting an investigation, and Gadsden says she plans to file a grievance contesting her administrative leave.  In the meantime, Gadsden has been receiving letters of support "from around the nation, from faculty, from others who also had been target because of Facebook comments," she said. "I don't think there's a definitive policy I violated so it would be nice if administration was clear about these things."

What do you think? Were Gadsden's bosses justified in putting her on leave? Or are employees' Facebook comments purely private?

Last updated: Mar 5, 2010

Inc. contributing editor COURTNEY RUBIN was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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