When Linda Trottman’s husband landed a promotion at his company, a co-worker congratulated her on it a few days later. Trottman says she hadn’t even realized her colleague monitored her husband’s profile on LinkedIn, a professional-networking site, where he had posted his new title. “It hit me that he was targeting my husband’s previous position,” she said.
We keep tabs on our favorite celebrities on Twitter. We check what are friends are up to on Facebook. We scope out potential dates on Match.com. And now our new habit of cyber-spying has permeated the workplace.
As social media explodes and information comes to us in the palm of our hand, we can’t resist using what we glean from the Web to gain a leg up in business. We now have the ability to go online to see who got the job we wanted, whether a co-worker spent the weekend golfing with the boss or what new marketing gimmick our competitor might be offering.
“People should be aware of what’s happening in their companies and their industries,” said Vanessa McGovern, an independent LinkedIn Strategist/Business Consultant. “It makes good business sense
Today, more people share information about their lives through status updates, location check-ins and résumé changes. Overall, more than 66 percent of Internet users participate on social networking sites as of February 2012, up from 46 percent in 2009.
Vigilant monitoring of online activity led one Miami advertising agency owner to discover her largest client was unfaithful. “I saw a new skill in a competitor’s LinkedIn profile mentioning her work for my client. It turned out she had gotten some project work, but I wouldn’t have known that if I wasn’t monitoring the Web closely,” she says. Another small business owner told me she noticed a client whose business she wanted regularly checked into a particular restaurant on Foursquare. She invited the client out to lunch at the restaurant, casually mentioning it was her own favorite dining spot.
Many companies see social networks as mere distractions for their employees, but there are those who recognize the tremendous opportunity they represent as a research tool. Heiko Dobrikow, general manager at the historic Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, closely watches the online activity of his competitors, his critics and his employees. He uses the information to gauge his hotel’s reputation, check out what his employees are saying and background anyone he plans to partner with in business.
“There is no more privacy out there; everything is out in the open,” he says. “You have to have your finger on the digital pulse.” By keeping tabs on competitors, Dobrikow says he got the idea to make his hotel pet-friendly and gained insight into how to promote the feature. “I spend a lot of time online gathering intelligence to make better, faster business decisions.”
Andrew K. Levi, head of the Miami office of Nardello & Co., often gets hired to dig up a person’s or business’ online trail either before they enter into a partnership or afterward, particularly if a company suspects foul play. “We’re almost at the point where business owners won’t do business with anyone they can’t find a background for online.”
With employers, bosses and competitors spying on each other, how do workers and employers adapt and keep private what they don’t want public? Is it even possible anymore? Just a few months ago, Hewlett-Packard’s Vice President Scott McClellan inadvertently tipped off competitors when he mentioned the computer maker’s new Web-storage initiative in his profile on LinkedIn. The information was later removed, though not before rivals got a look at the plans.
McGovern says business owners, executives andemployees should assume they’re being watched, and use caution when they share information. If you start a side business and want to market it online, assume your boss will find out and address it. For example, “You might say my background is in X and I work as a full time X, but on top of that I’m passionate about jewelry. On the weekends and evenings I love to share my time with women who also love jewelry. If you’re interested, contact me between these hours.”
With most recruiters and hiring managers admittedly using social media to screen job candidates, McGovern teaches workers how to use LinkedIn to their advantage, too. “If you were up for a position and see on LinkedIn that someone else got it, go to that person’s profile and see what his background is,” McGovern suggests. “That gives you a benchmark to be more desirable. That’s a power five years ago you didn’t have and it can be a huge advantage.”
That said, some social network users are reacting to cyber-spying. A February poll by Pew Research shows 63 percent of social networking site users have deleted people from their “friends” lists, 44 percent have deleted comments made by others on their profile, and 37 percent have removed their names from photos that were tagged to identify them.
Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology’s information privacy programs, believes employers may pull back from cyber-spying as they realize the downside. “Knowledge can mean liability,” he says. “What happens when you learn your star employee has a problem? You have to do something about it.”
But technology consultant, Scott Klososky , owner of Future Point of View, believes just the opposite will occur. He sees online listening becoming a full-time position at mid-size and large companies.
Already, companies are using monitoring software to monitor social networking sites, websites, CEO blogs and industry chat rooms. He says they want to learn whether employees are giving away company secrets or doing something unethical. They’re also using it to monitor prospective takeover candidates, looking for anything they say publicly that signals a sale. And they’re monitoring for customers on the verge of being acquired that could result in a lost account.
“They are looking for anything interesting or in the case of an employee, anything that helps establish a pattern,” Klososky says.
He says the tension is building between individual privacy and the need to connect and communicate in the online places where others now gather. “If you have no presence, you look like you’re not a player. To look valuable, you have to be online,” Klososky says. “But if you’re online, people are going to see everything you do.”
Workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.
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