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Social Media in the Workplace: Limits on Employee Free Speech

In recent years, social media has become the new normal of how we interact with friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. There are many benefits of using social media as but at times these sites can backfire on the user if the user is not careful as to what they make available to the public. Many employers struggle with the decision to allow employees use social media sites within the workplace. The use of social media sites can vary depending on the culture of the workplace.

The benefits of using social media in the workplace are that it can boost business in the means of fostering interoffice communication. It can also be an effective and inexpensive tool for mass marketing. Some businesses have found social media sites help bring positive awareness to their company.

The cons of social media usage in the workplace are when employees use them for personal reasons which can be a distraction which can lead to a decrease in productivity and performance. People need to be weary about what you share on social media because it can sometimes be misinterpreted and used against oneself.

A good example of an online backfire is Sal Perricone, assistant U.S. Attorney in Jim Letten’s office who was forced to resign amid a scandal over hundreds of online posts he authored on NOLA.com under at least one alias, “Henry L. Mencken1951.” Some of the comments bashed landfill owner Fred Heebe who was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office. Perricone also posted highly inflammatory statements about Federal judges, the police chief, defense attorneys, mayors, and even his boss, Jim Letten himself. Although, he was not posting on his personal social media page, his statements via his alias were uncovered.

At-will employees of private companies can be fired for any reason, including their political statements on social media or elsewhere online. The only limitation on terminations of at-will employees are protections from discrimination, such as age, race, sex or other protected class status. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) takes the position that certain employee views may be “concerted activity” which is protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Specifically, employees have the right to discuss wages and working conditions with co-workers.

Whether your company is permissive or restrictive concerning social media usage, it is good to have a written policy which is distributed to all employees to let them be familiar with the guidelines.

To develop a social media policy here are some basic guidelines;

  • Limit blogging that interferes with work commitments or prohibit blogging during work hours.
  • Prohibit employees from disclosing any information that’s confidential or proprietary to the company or any third party that has disclosed information to the company, including concepts or developments that the employees produce related to the company’s business. Refer employees to your company’s policy for guidance on what constitutes confidential information.
  • Inform employees that the company may request that they temporarily confine their website or blog commentary to topics unrelated to the company if you believe that it’s advisable or necessary to comply with securities regulations or other laws.
  • Caution employees that a breach of the blogging policy could result in discipline up to and including termination.

If you are a business owner or a business administrator and need assistance in drafting a social media policy please contact Patricia Pannell at pep@chehardy.com