A New Jersey restaurant has been hit with a jury verdict in favor of two waiters who were fired after the restaurant’s managers accessed a private social networking site where the waiters were criticizing management.

As the social networking (e.g., MySpace and Facebook) “craze” continues to expand, employers must be more mindful of privacy concerns relating to content made available in these media by applicants and employees. Hiring and other job decisions often seem based on information obtained from employees’ or applicants’ social interactions on the Internet, at least to some degree. Generally, employment decisions are more supportable where there is a social networking policy that has been communicated to employees.

In Brian Pietrylo, et al. v. Hillstone Restaurant Group d/b/a Houston’s, a federal court in New Jersey rejected the employer’s attempt to throw out the jury verdict that managers at a Houston’s restaurant intentionally and without authorization accessed a private, invitation-only chat group on MySpace in violation of the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA). The SCA prohibits unauthorized access of stored communications such as e-mail and Internet accounts. The Court also upheld the jury’s award of compensatory and punitive damages against Hillstone.

This case reminds employers to consider carefully any decision to monitor employees’ use of social networking sites.  Mistakes may be costly.