By: Helios on September 17th, 2014

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Risks Vs. Rewards of Social Media in the Workplace

Best Practices | Employee Relations

If you ask any IT Director at virtually any company in America which website is most frequently accessed by their employees, they will all answer in unison: Facebook.  Despite firewalling and preventative policy, social media has become ubiquitous and smart companies have learned to use it to their advantage while limiting risk.

Let’s start with a review of the legal implications.

In the past few years, states have stepped into the void of legal guidance on social media usage by passing many laws to protect employees.  In a number of states, it is now illegal for employers to ask for the social media account information for employees and candidates.  While this seems extreme, it’s important to note that many social media privacy laws have also given employees legal protection in who they connect with.  Many employers find it hard to imagine asking a job applicant for their Facebook password, but it’s easier to imagine a situation where a Sales Manager might require everyone on his team to “Link In” to project an image of corporate unity.  Again, these laws vary by state so you should check with an HR expert to ensure that your company practices are fully compliant.

The next thing to keep in mind is that the National Labor Relations Act’s (NLRA) protection of concerted activity extends to postings and comments that employees make on social media.  Remember that the NLRA gives employees the right to concerted activity based on terms of their employment so while you cannot stop them from signing a Facebook petition against your company to raise wages, you can take disciplinary action if their posts or comments mock or discredit your business or other employees.  You can also take action against employees who disclose sensitive information about your business such as customer lists, pricing strategies, etc.  The distinction between punishable offense and protected speech can be very difficult to determine and is mostly based on case law so all managers should be trained to consult with HR and possibly legal counsel before taking disciplinary action based on social media posts.

A subsidiary of Valero Energy Corporation was recently charged with an unfair labor practice by the National Labor Relations Board.  The ULP was charged by the United Steel Workers and there’s no evidence that Valero was attempting to take employment action based on their social media policy. Its mere existence and the fact that the policy was overly restrictive formed the grounds for the ULP.  Valero was required to rescind the policy, notify all employees in writing, and post notices in all of their work locations advising employees of their rights under the NLRA.  This case just goes to show that the problem is very real and that employers need to be very careful in crafting their policies.

Now that we’ve established an understanding of legal limitations and protections on social media usage, let’s discuss best practices.

In your employee handbook, you should have a social media policy to reinforce your company’s position on employee use of social media.  You should make it clear if you want to prohibit social media usage on company property for non-work related tasks. You should also emphasize that you expect employees to interact via social media using the same level of respect and good judgment they use face-to-face.  Employees should be encouraged to make it clear when they are speaking for themselves or their employer and finally, guidelines should be given to protect intellectual property and confidential information. Consequences should be articulated for those who violate the policy.

It’s also a great idea to provide employees with social media training so they understand the benefits of being engaged in a positive manner to build your company brand.  Given that LinkedIn and Twitter are completely free and used by many companies to promote their services and products, it is worth investing in employee training to maximize the potential of this tool.  Helios' HR experts can provide a formal training or you can facilitate a conversation amongst employees through a brown bag lunch session.  Sales and Marketing Professionals are often good internal resources to provide counsel to their colleagues on building their networks, joining groups, etc.  Lastly, this is a great topic to incorporate into your mentoring program as Mentors can communicate company standards and expectations in a way that’s conversational and approachable.

As the world grows ever more digitally connected, social media usage will only increase.  For those companies who expertly harness the power of social media, the rewards are endless.  But it can present challenges when it comes to employee relations.  The ever present smart phone means that your employees are constantly connected and only a phone call away but without proper guidelines, it can give them the means to harm your company’s reputation, harass other employees, or worse.  Make sure that your policies both protect the company from liability and promote the behavior that you want to see.