Column: The social at-work

Social media activities by employees can create numerous problems for employers

It was recently announced that more people use Facebook for networking than those who use the search engine Google. This is not too surprising given the fact that almost everyone seems to have an account with a social networking site, using them to electronically meet and interact with anyone and everyone.

While social media can provide new ways to interact and respond to customers, social media activities by employees can create numerous problems for employers. Employees spend the majority of their waking hours at work. They often date coworkers and may have peers that they do not get along with for one reason or another. The end result is that they frequently showcase their workplace issues – good and bad – with the world through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as various blogs.

Social networking can seriously impact the employer in a negative manner. A company can work for years to craft a positive image of itself to the public, and more importantly to its client base, only to have that well-crafted image quickly tarnished by negative postings from employees. This is not the same as the company bulletin board in the lunchroom. These sites can be accessed by literally millions of individuals, 24-hours per day, and cannot be effectively retrieved once posted to the web.

Recognizing this risk, many companies are implementing policies to directly address the use of social-networking sites so that employees know exactly what is expected of them. Generally, a good policy will:

•Require that all information posted by an employee comply with existing policies governing the use of confidential and proprietary information

•Prohibit references to customers, directly or indirectly

•Ban the use of company logos or trademarks

•Require employees to have disclaimers clearly stating that views expressed belong to the author and do not represent the company

•Remind employees that their activities online reflect the company and its practices

•Remind employees to be respectful of co-workers and the company’s reputation at all times

While companies must consider the right of employees to speak about their concerns with each other, the reality is that employees are representatives of the employer and should conduct themselves accordingly. A good company policy governing such statements and postings will clarify how employees should conduct themselves when specifically referencing the company and its issues on such sites.

Unfortunately for employers, the extent to which an employer can restrict work related comments is still being worked out. Social networking is still a relatively new process that has taken the workplace off guard. Under the National Labor Relations Act, the right of employees to engage in concerted activity, including communication about their working conditions, is protected. Just how protected is not clear and will likely be worked out over the next few years. That being said, it is still important that employers have a policy in place.

The widespread use of social networking sites will not go away; these sites are here to stay. A failure to address how employees communicate on these sites could result, for example, in a company failing to effectively address racist or sexually harassing comments posted by one coworker against another. This, in turn, could lend credence to the argument that the company tolerated inappropriate conduct between employees. More and more, supervisors and human resource managers are being faced with employee complaints or misconduct arising from the use of social media.

In short, the use of social networking sites to air workplace grievances is a reality. Employers cannot afford to ignore this. With the right policies to govern such communications and an understanding of this new challenge, employers can position themselves to avoid future social networking-related problems.

Clarence Belnavis is a partner at the lawfirm Fisher & Phillips LLP, specializing in labor and employment law. He can be reached at (503) 242-4262.

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