Q&A with Vic Albert
Employers may limit workers' comments on social media sites
Q: Tate Publishing in Mustang last week fired workers for their statements about the company online. May a private employer ban its employees from using social media outlets altogether?
A: No. Employees have the right to participate in social media and, in some situations or contexts, they may comment on their workplace or job in a way that is protected speech.
Q: Are there any limits to what employees may say on social media sites?
A: Yes. Employers have rights to make sure employees participating in social media do not disclose the employer's confidential information and trade secrets; are not discriminatory or derogatory; do not commit threats of violence; defamation; do not post illegal content; do not participate in unlawful conduct, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement.
Q: How may an employer address these areas of concern?
A: Many employers are developing formal written policies for electronic communication and use of electronic devices. These policies help address business use of the employer's information and reference, while also reminding employees that social media is not private and that misuse may result in disciplinary action. Without a formal policy, employers are taking a large risk to discipline or fire employees for things that are said on social media sites.
Q: What are the initial points to consider when writing these policies?
A: Who, what and why. Consider who will be regulated by the policy — i.e., will certain departments be excluded altogether or subject to fewer restrictions? Also think about what will be regulated. Will all activity be subject to the policy or only when the employee somehow associates himself with your organization? Finally, address why you are writing the policy. Are you trying to encourage your employees to embrace social media or are you trying to regulate online use of social-networking sites because productivity has become an issue?
Q: What steps can be taken to ensure that policies are effective?
A: Policies must be clear and organization specific. They should also be consistent with other policies and procedures of the organization. Areas that should be included are anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, employee privacy, confidentiality and trade secrets. Employees should be reminded to keep confidential information confidential, to refrain from posting derogatory or inflammatory content, to not imply participation in illegal activities and to protect privacy rights. For extra precaution, some companies are restricting employees to using personal email accounts for personal business and are requiring disclaimers on social media accounts to explain that opinions and content are personal and not from the organization. Of course, the policies must also be communicated to all employees in such a way that they are understood and remembered.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER