Dealing with Employees’ Use of Social Media

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As labor lawyers have been predicting over the last year, social media in the workplace is getting trickier to navigate.

What is an appropriate reaction from an employer when an employee posts a negative statement about the company on his or her Facebook page? What, if any, policies can employers create that restrict employees’ use of social media? And, should an employee even use social media while at work or after work hours?

In our consulting practice, we have seen the most confusion surrounding social media coming from a new generation of young, entry-level employees used to having multiple communication technologies constantly available, from texting and blogging to instant messaging and tweeting. A common faux pas we see is an overuse of interpersonal e-mails, frequent visiting of Facebook accounts, or overuse of texting. This new work force may simply lack awareness or be confused about the appropriate use of social media with their outside contacts during work hours.

While these issues are not evolving into legal cases, they do involve educating this new generation.

Employer’s response

If you have employees engaging in excessive use of social media, whether using a BlackBerry, iPhone or the company computer, use this sample script to address the issue:

“When you are at work, you are here for the sole purpose of helping our organization achieve our mission and strategic business objectives.”

“This does not include keeping in continual and constant contact with your network of friends. A brief email or text about where to meet for lunch, thoughts for plans after work, or even a quick personal message has always been acceptable and will continue to be (as we like working with people who have happy balanced lives), but when the emailing or texting becomes so distracting to you that it limits your ability to actually complete your work, or where these outside interactions disrupt or weaken your work performance, we have a problem.”

These are minor examples of social media blunders. More serious issues arise when employees become so disgruntled or dissatisfied with their employers, that they strike out both visibly and publicly on Facebook pages and Twitter, where they post direct and critical remarks toward their employers.

Developing a policy

With a new and increased focus on protecting employees’ rights to express themselves electronically, employers should definitely use caution when drafting social media policies.

Care should be taken to ensure it does not prohibit employees from “protected activity.” Employers should exercise caution in drafting policies restricting the use of social media outside of working hours and in disciplining employees for their use of social media, according to Josh Kirkpatrick, a shareholder with the employment law firm Littler Mendelson.

In 2010, the Hartford Regional Office of the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against American Medical Response of Connecticut after the company terminated an employee for making negative comments about her supervisor on her Facebook page. According to Kirkpatrick, “the board took the position that the employee’s actions constituted protected activity under the NLRB; thus, the termination was alleged to be an act of retaliation.”

In addition to a well-written policy, do a check-in on your work environment. Are you building a company where employees like to come to work? Is there strong employee morale, opportunities for growth, a sense of partnership and collaboration? Do employees feel they are in charge of their destiny? Educate your management team in human resources best practices for creating a great work environment, and then engage and empower your employees.

Employees who feel they make a genuine difference, are depended on, own their importance to the success of the organization, and are valued, don’t engage in activities that are disparaging to their employers. Why? Because they are excited about their jobs, interested in what they do and interested in doing it the best they can.

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