by Meridith Levinson

In Employee-Monitoring Sting, Swiss Insurance Company Fires Employee for Using Facebook

Apr 29, 20094 mins
IT Leadership

Was the company justified in its method for uncovering employee wrong-doing and in its disciplinary action? Or did it overstep its bounds?  

Have you heard about the Swiss woman who was fired from her job for using Facebook when she had told her employer that she’d be out sick? (No, this isn’t a joke; it actually happened.) I heard about this story yesterday, and it raises all sorts of complicated questions.

Here’s the background, courtesy of CNET’s Erik Palm and Reuters: An employee of a Swiss insurance company, Nationale Suisse, told her employer that she needed to take some time away from her computer to lie down. When she should have been resting, her employer discovered, by sending a friend request to her Facebook account, that she was, in fact, cruising the popular social-networking site.

The company subsequently fired her for lying about what she was doing. 

At first, I thought Suisse Nationale was being extreme in firing this woman just because she was on Facebook on her personal (read: sick) time. But now I’m beginning to suspect that this woman was perhaps a problem employee, and that her activity on Facebook—or rather, her dishonesty about her activity—was the “cause” or proof her employer needed to can her. (Keep in mind that it’s harder for European companies to terminate their workers than it is for American companies, due to Europe’s strict labor laws.) 

After all, if this woman had been an honest employee, the company would not have had any reason to monitor her activity online. I presume that Nationale Suisse must have had reason to suspect that she was dishonest or untrustworthy or slacking off during the workday to set up a sting operation on Facebook. (Unfortunately, I have no first-hand knowledge of this case or of the parties involved, so my theories are just theories and are not meant to harm Nationale Suisse or the woman who was terminated.)

On the other hand, did Nationale Suisse overstep its bounds by snooping into this employee’s online activity?

If the employee did, in fact, take personal time off from work to rest, she ought to be able to do whatever she wants on her personal time—whether that’s taking a nap, logging into Facebook, going to the post office or watching All My Children—despite what she told her employer and without having to worry about her employer spying on her.

Let’s face it: Employees can’t always be honest with their employers about the time they need to take off from work. Sometimes a doctor’s appointment really is a doctor’s appointment (and even then, it’s personal). Other times, it’s code for a job interview. 

However, if the Nationale Suisse employee was still on the clock and had just asked for a temporary break from the work day, I understand why her employer might have been ticked off. And if she was a management problem, I see Nationale Suisse’s disciplinary action as justified. 

That being said, I’m less comfortable with the company’s method for exposing the employee’s wrong-doing. It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m not keen on employee monitoring, given my stance on other issues having to do with employee rights and civil liberties. 

I understand that employee monitoring is perfectly legal, that companies have to protect their assets, and that employers don’t pay their employees to spend their days sending personal e-mail and goofing off online. But I do think it can pose a threat to Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties. Then again, if employee monitoring helps uncover securities fraud, insider trading or executives cooking the books, I’m all for it.

I’ve shared with you what I think of this controversy at National Suisse. What do you make of it? Do you think the company was justified in its actions, or do you think it took extreme measures against the employee?