Facebook friends can be trouble

Last updated 05:00 13/12/2012

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It may be time to start pruning that Facebook friend list if you want to stay out of trouble at work.

Ministry of Social Development employee Julie Schwartfeger was fired from the job she had held for almost 30 years after she accessed the files of six people she was "friends" with on the social networking site.

As a case manager in Rotorua, Mrs Schwartfeger worked with beneficiaries in assisting them with their entitlements.

The ministry's code of conduct forbids staff from accessing the files of friends and acquaintances but Mrs Schwartfeger argued that the people on her Facebook page were not real friends.

She was fired in June and took her case to the Employment Relations Authority. In a decision published yesterday, authority member Tania Tetitaha ordered her interim reinstatement until a hearing next year, because the definition of a friend or acquaintance was unclear.

"Taken in its widest sense, it could encompass every person Ms Schwartfeger has ever interacted with, imposing overly onerous duties of disclosure," Ms Tetitaha said.

In the meantime, she ordered Mrs Schwartfeger to disclose a list of all her Facebook friends to the ministry.

The allegations related to two clients of Mrs Schwartfeger, two former colleagues, a friend's husband's niece, and the wife of a friend of her mother.

The ministry claimed her actions, combined with a previous warning in 2009, amounted to serious misconduct and warranted dismissal. Ms Tetitaha disagreed and a personal grievance hearing will be held in March.

Speaking to The Dominion Post, Mrs Schwartfeger, 46, claimed she was a "Facebook novice" and stressed that all the files accessed had been for legitimate work purposes.

She had amassed 98 friends on the site since she joined in 2008 but she considered only about three of them to be real friends.

One of her clients had requested her as a friend more than three years ago but they had barely interacted during that time.

This year, when she received a chat message from the client on her birthday asking why she had not heard from her, Mrs Schwartfeger told her to call the next day.

This seemed to be the catalyst for the investigation, she said.

"To be honest, I said to them: look, I'm really naive about this Facebook stuff, I wouldn't really know much about it.

"In other parts of our business we text clients to prompt them of appointments, what's the difference?

"I didn't say: come into Work and Income and I'll give you some dollars. "

Work and Income deputy chief executive Debbie Power stood by the decision to dismiss her.

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Employment lawyer Craig Mundy-Smith said the most important fact was how the code of conduct policy was written.

"What a friend is has really changed over time.

"When I was a kid, it was someone whose house you visited . . . but because we live in such a digital world you can have friends who you've never met."

Employers needed to make sure the onus was switched to the employee to prove how strong an online relationship was.

"At the moment you can send emails and messages and LOL cats to anybody . . . but how do we prove that one person is less of a friend than another person?"

- The Dominion Post

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