Could a Facebook search have prevented this tragedy?

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In the late 1990s I worked as an office manager for an accounting firm in downtown Edmonton. One afternoon I was given the task of collecting computer and voicemail passwords from all the staff in the firm. Despite some resistance I was able to secure this information and pass it on to the partners. The explanation was simple: we were told the computer and telephone equipment (and apparently any activity that happened on them) was owned by the firm. Privacy was secondary to the stated logic that access to information was of utmost importance. The general conclusion around the office, however, was that the move was controlling and intimidating, and people couldn’t wait to leave the firm.

Since then, new online ethical issues continue to emerge. Employers are increasingly using social media as part of their human resources screening for potential new employees. Young workers, particularly those with edgy social lifestyles, are warned by career counsellors to be careful about what they post online. Pictures or status updates about wild parties or drunken binges don’t tend to enhance a potential employee’s perceived skill set.

But even more dangerous, one would assume, would be posts about “making the six-o’clock news” and “popping people off,” which is what we saw this past week on Travis Baumgartner’s Facebook page. His profile picture shows a masked person wearing sunglasses with a cover banner of a bloodied skull. That should raise even more questions about his personality and intent.

Yet somehow G4S seemed to miss this when hiring Baumgartner to its squad recently. For a company that transports employees in armoured vehicles, dons them with bullet-proof vests, then hands them loaded guns, one would think some good old Facebook creeping could go a long way before adding them to their ranks. Baumgartner’s Facebook updates were riddled with innuendos about violence and anger. It is easy to see (now) that he was dreadfully disturbed in the days leading up to the shooting. It is a terrible shame that it wasn’t noticed in time.

It would be interesting to know what rights a company has to reject an individual or fire them based on their social media activity. Laws are slowly changing as the definition of public presence becomes more closely related to a person’s online presence. I suspect that it is easy to simply not offer a position to an individual who poses a threat to a company’s reputation or safety. Once that person is hired, however, it would be more difficult to show them the door for the same online activity. Cases exist of employees who were fired for publicly maligning their company on social media. Would not threats about killing people create huge cause for concern? I suppose not all employers have the time to check out their employees online, but perhaps in some occupations it would be wise.

Regardless of the legal ramifications, this tragedy is a terrible event on multiple levels. It is so completely worthless … a young angry man killing his co-workers for a useless amount of money. His stupidity in trying to cross the border with $330,000 in a bag in his truck, with his mother’s license plate attached to the vehicle, all the while being without a passport is beyond belief. It is astonishing and heartbreaking that somehow this deviant was hired to hold a gun.

Our hearts go out to the family and friends of those who lost their lives and their recovering colleague. Our fists are raised at the senseless and abhorrent act of an immature and violent brat.

Dee-Ann Schwanke joined Facebook in 2006 to observe her children’s online activity.

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