This article is part of an on-going, social media series.
Because the law still is evolving, many employers are fearful of disciplining and terminating their employees for conduct on social networking sites. While this apprehension is understandable, it need not paralyze employers from protecting their legitimate business interests with an appropriate social networking policy.
Recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed an unfair labor practice charge against American Medical Response of Connecticut for terminating an employee who posted insulting personal remarks about her supervisor on her Facebook page. Although the parties settled the charge before the hearing, the NLRB has made it clear that it intends to aggressively prosecute employers that discipline employees for this type of behavior. Because the NLRB’s authority reaches both unionized and non-unionized employers, the potential ramifications to employers is widespread.
While there is still plenty of gray area regarding what type of online behavior an employer can prohibit, there is certain employee conduct that employers can forbid in order to protect themselves against unscrupulous employee activity on social networking sites. There are common circumstances of an employee’s online activity that generally remain lawful grounds for discipline.
The clearest circumstance is an employee’s use of social media while on the clock. An employee who engages in online activity for personal reasons at work likely is failing to be productive for the employer, and such conduct may lead to discipline up to and including termination. If the employer intends to prohibit personal use of social media while an employee is on the job, the employer should: (1) implement and distribute a written policy that prohibits personal social networking while at work or while working; (2) ensure that it enforces this policy consistently with all employees so as to avoid claims of discrimination; and (3) have documentation to support the employer’s belief that the employee engaged in such misbehavior at work. If an employee’s job responsibilities require him to be online, the employer should consider appropriate measures, such as whether to block access to social media sites.
Another clear circumstance where an employer can discipline employees for their use of social media is when the employer’s confidential and proprietary information is disclosed through the employee’s social network, regardless of whether such online activity takes place outside of the office and outside of work hours.
So that the employee is clear about how he may, if at all, discuss work through social media, the employer should take some basic precautions: (1) have the employee execute an enforceable contract that prohibits the employee’s use of or disclosure of confidential and proprietary information; (2) require all similarly situated employees to execute the same contract; (3) enforce the breaches of such a contract consistently with all employees who have executed it so as to avoid claims of discrimination; and (4) have evidence to support the employer’s belief that the employee engaged in such misbehavior at work.
While there are clearly social networking activities that an employer can prohibit, it must be careful not to cross the line. Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees are entitled to engage in “protected concerted activities,” which include discussing the terms and conditions of their work between two or more employees. An overly broad social networking policy may violate the act if it interferes with employees’ right to engage in such protected activity.
Carrie Pixler, an associate with Fennemore Craig and a member of the firm’s Litigation Section, co-authored this story.
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