Crafting a Social Media Policy: Employer-Employee Legal Concerns

In this series of Social Media and the Law I have touched upon some of the major legal areas of concern when dealing with social media and employment.  To see what was talked about or for a refresher click on the following links:

Having a Social Media Policy

First of all, let me say I understand that a lot of this can be overwhelming.  You may feel that even crafting a Social Media policy is not even a part of the bottom line and seems to be difficult endeavor, especially if you are a small business owner worried about inventory or keeping customers, now you have to think about Facebook, Twitter, and blogs?  So you have one of these initial responses: a) close your eyes and hope for the best; b) create a social media policy that is so general that it is unenforceable or has no meaning; or c) completely ban social media use.

I find a lot of smaller organizations feel this way because they feel they do not have the resources to be effective in this matter.  First of all, smaller organizations are closer to their employees and can directly work with them to craft a good policy.  Secondly, there are many affordable attorneys that can either review what you create or draft something as a pat of your handbook and employee agreements package.

With that being said let’s look at some of the things you should think about when creating a social media policy.  I will start out with the legal landmines you want to avoid when crafting a policy.  It will be followed with some business questions you should ask yourself.

Legal Considerations

One of the goals of a good media policy is one that should help protect the employer from lawsuits.  I will do a brief run through of the various laws that affect your policy, and use examples of what might be considered a good response or way to handle the situation.

Employment Law

Protected Statuses and Discrimination – remember that certain demographics of the population have protected statuses under both federal and state laws.  Therefore, in this area you should avoid using an applicant’s Facebook page to make the decision to hire them.  Once again, remember Hawaii now protects gender expression.

Harassment – as an employer you are legally obligated to create a safe work environment for your employees.  Therefore, if you have a case of “sexting” (sexual texts) or cyberbullying you need to take action or run the risk of violating the law.

Fair Credit Reporting – remember if you use a third party to obtain background information on a potential employee you must get their permission.  As part of the hiring process you could have potential hires fill out authorization forms.

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) – the National Relations Board, which enforces the NLRA has been keen on clamping down on employers that have broad social media policies that ban protected activities or respond to negative postings on Facebook/Twitter by firing the offending employee.  A couple things about this situation:

  1. Narrow the scope of your social media policy.  Avoid blanket policies that prohibit everything and implement a review policy if you find an offending comment by an employee on a social network site.  Be careful and make sure the comment is offensive and not a commentary on the working environment.
  2. Create a grievance process. If your employees are bad-mouthing your company or managers you may not have a good venting mechanism or allow them to air their grievances.  So they are turning to an outlet, which gives them control over their complaints.  You might need to investigate where the tension is coming from.

Intellectual Property

Trade Secrets – remember that if an employee discloses protected information to a new employer, that new employer could be faced with liability from the former employer.  In general, all companies that have an employee who has access to sensitive information should have that employee sign non-disclosure and non-compete agreements.  In addition, if you are in the habit of providing electronic communication devices (i.e cellphones, laptops, etc . . .) you should remind the employee that the equipment is company property along with all the data contained on it.   You also want to make sure your employees do not post things that are supposed to be secret.

While, this is not a trade secrets situation, this video report by KITV news on a Honolulu Liquor Commission employee highlights the problems of Facebook posting when an employee has access to sensitive information (which includes the identity of fellow employees).

Specific Professions

HIPAA – if you are medical provider or a business affiliate of one should be highly sensitive to staff having access to protected health information on their computers that have Internet access.  Recall that a woman got in trouble for posting a patient’ HIV status on her MySpace.  Excellent training and careful security protocols are a must in this area.

Legal Ethics – attorneys, your paralegals and secretaries should avoid talking about what they are doing at work.  If you have a client who does not want to be identified, and a paralegal inadvertently identifies them through a Tweet or posting a picture you will be in violation of legal ethical rules.  Similar to HIPAA, a lot of training and explicit policies should help you prevent such problems.

Business Considerations

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but from a business owner/manager’s perspective these are some questions you should consider when crafting your social media policy:

  • What is your corporate culture?
  • What is the function/nature of your business?  Does it require a lot of confidentiality?
  • Who would you like to have access to the company’s information?
  • Does your company use social media for its advertising and marketing?
  • What is the size of your company?
  • When (during the day/week) is your company in operation?  What is your break-time policy?
  • How sophisticated is your workforce?
  • How important is computing, Internet access, and mobile usage to your company?

You should have some realistic expectations about creating a social policy and then implementing it.  Having absurd goals, like you are going to check all your employee’s Facebook pages at the end of the workday does not do you any favors.   Your policy should be fair and practical because at the end of the day you are are the one who has to get it to work.

Before I get to implementation considerations I will touch upon another aspect of creating a Social Media policy.  As we have seen Facebook, Twitter, and the like do not solely affect your relationship with your employees.  These platforms are sometimes integrated into a company’s marketing strategy and there are certain legal concerns of their use when you engage the world outside the organization.  So next time, (which will be July 5th due to 4th of July celebrating) I will discuss Crafting a Social Media Policy and the Outside World.

Don't forget if you enjoy this series or any of the other series on my blawg feel free to subscribe in the right-hand corner of this page to receive e-mail updates on posts.  If you are on Facebook be sure to "Like" "Ryan K. Hew" to get updates there as well.  See you next time.

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*Disclaimer:  This post discusses general legal issues, but does not constitute legal advice in any respect.   No reader should act or refrain from acting based on information contained herein without seeking the advice of counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.   Ryan K. Hew, Attorney At Law, LLLC expressly disclaims all liability in respect to any actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this post.