Employers can take steps to reduce the risk of legal problems that can arise when employees misuse social media.
By Robin Paggi, Worklogic HR
"If you don’t have a Facebook page already, create one," advises marketing expert Ross Fishman in his step-by-step guide for those who need to generate business for their companies.
Lots of folks in the dairy industry have followed this advice. For example, one of Dairy Today’s 2014 Dollars & Sense contributors, Mark Rodgers, has a Facebook page for his Hillcrest Farms Dairy in Dearing, Ga.
Fishman advises hopeful business generators to keep their social media posts casual but professional. Indeed, dairy owners and operators need to be concerned about the messages they post on social media sites in order to obtain more business. They also need to be concerned about the messages their employees post on social media sites in order to avoid litigation.
Unfortunately, lots of employees post unprofessional messages about themselves and their employers. For example, the Florida Sheriff’s deputy who appeared in uniform on his MySpace page, wrote about putting people in jail, and posted a list of his favorite things, which included female breasts, swimming naked, and drinking heavily and often. Thirteen Virgin Atlantic cabin crewmembers posted disparaging remarks about the airline and its customers on Facebook. A Google new-hire divulged confidential information about the company’s financial situation and planned product offerings in his blog. And, the list goes on.
The bad news for employers is that they may face legal liability when employees engage in this kind of activity, regardless of whether it happens at work or at home.
What kind of legal problems arise when employees misuse social media? Employees who post derogatory comments about co-workers’ race, religion, age, or any other protected characteristic put their employer at risk of a discrimination claim. Employees who post rumors or offensive false statements about co-workers put their employer at risk of a defamation claim. Employees who post sexually charged or offensive information put their employer at risk of a hostile work environment claim. And, the list goes on.
The good news for employers is that they may take steps to reduce the risk of liability. Employers may create a social media policy that, among other things:
• States that the misuse of social media may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination;
• Prohibits employees from posting during business hours, unless for business reasons;
• Prohibits employees from disclosing proprietary and confidential information;
• Prohibits employees from posting false information about the company, employees, and customers; and,
• Prohibits employees from making representations on behalf of their employer.
Although employers are allowed to implement a social media policy, there are some legal constraints they should consider before taking adverse action against employees, such as:
• How the employer accessed the information;
• Whether the employee was engaged in legal off-duty activity or protected concerted activity (such as trying to unionize);
• Whether the employee could be protected under a whistleblower statute; and,
• Whether the posting related to political activities or affiliations.
Employees need to know that misusing social media may have dire consequences for them as well as for their employer. The Florida Sheriff’s deputy mentioned above was fired for his posting, as were the 13 Virgin Atlantic crewmembers, and the Google employee. Employees also need to know that misuse of social media also includes accessing it too much while at work. According to Facebook Press Room, the average user spends more than 55 minutes on the site each day. If those 55 minutes is while at work, an employee could be in trouble.
Social media is not a bad thing. However, using it to damage employers, co-workers and clients, whether intentionally or not, is a bad thing. A policy that communicates clear expectations about the appropriate and inappropriate use of social media is a good thing and benefits employers and employees alike.
Robin Paggi is the training coordinator at Worklogic HR, a human resources outsourcing company. In addition to conducting workshops on HR issues, she is a frequent presenter at conferences and a regular contributor to The Bakersfield Californian, The Kern Business Journal and Bakersfield Magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.