A case is brewing in federal court in New Jersey that pits bosses against two employees who were complaining about their workplace on an invite-only discussion group on MySpace.com. The case tests whether a supervisor who managed to log into the forum—and then fired employees who bad-mouthed supervisors and customers there—had the right to do so. The case has some legal and privacy experts concerned that companies are intruding into areas that their employees had considered off limits. The question is whether employees have a right to privacy in their non-work-created communications with each other. The case centers on two employees of Houston’s restaurant in Hackensack, New Jersey: bartender Brian Pietrylo and waitress Doreen Marino. In 2006, the two workers created and contributed to a forum about their workplace on MySpace.com. Pietrylo e-mailed invitations to coworkers, who then had to log on using a personal e-mail address and a password. “I thought this would be a nice way to vent … without any outside eyes spying on us. This group is entirely private,” Pietrylo wrote in his introduction to the forum, according to court filings. In the forum, Pietrylo and Marino, who was his girlfriend, made fun of Houston’s décor and patrons and made sexual jokes. They also made negative comments about their supervisors. The supervisors were tipped off to the forum by Karen St. Jean, a restaurant hostess, who logged into her account at an after-hours gathering with a Houston’s manager to show him the site. They all had a laugh, St. Jean said in a court deposition, and she didn’t think about any more about it. But later, another supervisor called St. Jean into his office and asked her for her e-mail and password to the forum. Then login information was passed up the supervisory chain, where restaurant managers viewed the comments. The following week, Pietrylo and Marino were fired. Houston’s managers have said in court filings that the pair’s online posts violated policies set out in an employee handbook, which includes professionalism and a positive attitude. In their lawsuit, Marino and Pietrylo claim that their managers illegally accessed their online communication in violation of federal wiretapping statutes. They also claimed that the managers violated their privacy under New Jersey law. St. Jean said in a deposition that she feared she would be fired if she didn’t give up her password, a twist in the case that could sway a jury against the company.
1. You be the judge. Who is right in this case, the company or the two employees?
2. You be the manager. What should the managers at Houston’s have done when they learned about the negative comments on MySpace?
3. You be the ethics specialist. How ethical were the managers in looking in the MySpace comments? How ethical were the employees in posting negative comments about their employer and its patrons on MySpace?
4. You be the Internet researcher. What was the eventual outcome of this case?
5. To what extent is Karen St. Jean a backstabber?
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