How studying recent court cases can help protect against unneccessary litigation

Christopher Carney, Chair, Labor & Employment Group, Brouse McDowell

If employees treat social media as a sort of online water cooler where comments are posted about colleagues, managers and customers, what rights do employers have to control the conversation?

Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter open up a floodgate of human resources issues that companies must address with a formal policy and open communication with employees — before a litigious situation arises. Can a business owner fire an employee for bad-mouthing the company? Is it permissible for a worker to complain about company decisions and managers on Facebook? How “private” are these social media postings, really?

“Recent court cases shed light on the responsibility employers have to create a solid social media policy and to talk with employees about how social media is used in and out of the workplace,” says Christopher Carney, chair of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Brouse McDowell in Cleveland.

Smart Business spoke with Carney about social media regulation and what employers can do to be proactive in this fast-changing area of business and the law.

What are some common mistakes businesses make when using social media?

It is no secret employers use social media to screen applicants. However, they can get into trouble when they use social media to screen out applicants. It is illegal to discriminate against someone in the hiring process on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation. It is also illegal to use an applicant’s Facebook page or Twitter account to eliminate candidates. The bottom line is that if you possess this information and it goes into your decision-making process, that is against the law.

The best way to avoid problems in this area is to have a third party do the screening. That way, the ultimate decision-maker does not see any legally protected information discovered using social media. If you cannot use a third party, then your company’s HR department should do the screening and not provide you with any legally protected information.

Another common mistake employers make is to ‘friend’ employees with a fake profile or seek information about an employee through a third party that is ‘friends’ with the employee. Even with the Internet, there is an expectation of privacy with Facebook because the profiler invariably limits access to his or her Facebook page.

How has the government attempted to regulate the use of social media by employers?

Here is some background: Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who engage in ‘concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.’ The NLRA’s protections are not limited to union organizing activities or employee conduct in a unionized environment. ‘Mutual aid or protection’ includes any group of unrepresented employees talking about wages, hours and working conditions.   In 2010, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made national headlines by issuing a complaint accusing an employer of unlawfully discharging an employee for posting critical remarks on her Facebook page questioning her supervisor’s mental health. Since then, the NLRB has continued its focus on social media, aggressively prosecuting cases where employees are discharged or disciplined for social media use. Two recent NLRB administrative law judge decisions illustrate how the NLRB is shaping the law in this area.

In September 2011 the NLRB found that an auto dealer did not violate the NLRA when it fired a car salesman who had posted on Facebook photographs of and made sarcastic comments about an accident that occurred at one of the employer’s dealerships. The judge concluded that the posting was not protected because it was posted ‘without any discussion with any other employee . . . and had no connection to any of the employees’ terms and conditions of employment.’ In another decision that came out at the same time, a judge held that a nonprofit, social service organization did violate the act by firing five employees who posted on Facebook negative comments about their workloads and staffing issues. The judge determined that the terminated employees’ discussions were protected, concerted activity because it involved conversations among co-workers about the terms and conditions of their employment, including job performance and staffing levels.

Notably, both cases dealt with non-union employers.

What should business owners take away from these cases?

The natural inclination for a business owner is to take action against an employee for making critical statements about the business or its owners, particularly in such a public forum as the Internet. However, employers should proceed with caution. General griping is one thing, but if the criticism is tied to a term or condition of employment and is between or among co-workers, then it is likely protected. Any adverse employment action could potentially violate the law.

Should employers have a social media policy?

Yes. And any such policy should be narrowly tailored to avoid ambiguity. It should inform employees that the policy does not prohibit employees from discussing or disclosing the terms and conditions of their employment. Also, any social media policy should clearly state that employees are prohibited from disclosing confidential or proprietary information on social media. It also should prohibit employees from making disparaging comments about the company, its employees or its customers. Finally, the policy should place employees on notice that the employer may monitor employee postings in order to minimize any expectation of privacy the employees may think they have.

It’s a good idea to consult with a legal professional when crafting a social media policy to be sure that the house rules you set comply with the law and cover any worst-case scenarios that could occur.

Christopher Carney is chair of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Brouse McDowell in Cleveland. Contact him at (216) 830-6830 or [email protected]