News Column

What's Fair for 'Social' Media in the Workplace?

Oct. 14, 2012

Kelly Yamanouchi, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Social Media

Facebook and other social media sites can be handy tools for connecting with friends. Or they can sap up time on the job and give the world a look at intimate details of personal life.

When it comes to the workplace, those factors -- combined with a changing regulatory and legal landscape -- have created a minefield for employees and employers.

And disputes over what's acceptable often end up in court.

Locally, a Barrow County high school teacher filed suit after she said she was forced to resign because of photos posted on Facebook of her drinking alcohol. A Buford City Schools bus driver was fired after posting a link to an article detailing the district's cost to install artificial turf at Buford High School, with the comment "today's humor." She also filed suit, but later settled with the school district. A Delta flight attendant was fired after she posted provocative photos on Facebook. She, too, filed suit, then settled.

"Believe it or not, people post things that are mind-blowing," said Shelley Collins, an administrative assistant in Atlanta. "People just need to use common sense. ... I just think your work life should be kept completely separate from your personal life on social media."

But other hazards could also arise when managers and subordinates become Facebook friends or when companies do online research on a potential hire.

"There's a real danger that they will learn more information than they wish they had," like news of an illness, injury or pregnancy, according to said Baker Donelson employment attorney David Gevertz. Finding out about such personal information online about employees or potential hires can create a problem, particularly if the person feels it lead to discrimination.

What's more, managers could learn that a valuable employee "is maybe engaging in some sort of behavior that you would frown on, and somebody is going to to want you to do something with that information that you gathered," he said. "It's almost a Pandora's box."

Multiple police officers have lost their certifications for inappropriate online postings, according to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.

Other issues could arise if people endorse their company's products online without disclosing that they work for the company. That could raise the risk of running afoul of Federal Trade Commission laws governing truth in advertising.

Normally, employees giving an opinion on an issue on social media may not want to say where they work, said Littler Mendelson employment attorney Gavin Appleby. But if they're supporting the company's product, they should disclose that they work there, he said. "It's a complete flip... It's going to take a little training."

To be sure, the FTC said it is not monitoring bloggers and has no plans to. "If concerns about possible violations of the FTC Act come to our attention, we'll evaluate them case by case," the FTC says in a Q&A on its website. "If law enforcement becomes necessary, our focus will be on advertisers, not endorsers," the agency says.

Steve Richardson, who is editor of a travel website, said he keeps separate social media accounts for business and personal use. "However," he added, "I will put business information onto my personal accounts when it'll benefit me and those I know, but I generally stay away from sharing personal information on the business platforms."

Meanwhile, companies are also concerned that "employees are using social media to vent workplace concerns, but with a much wider audience than ever before," said Gevertz.

In May, the National Labor Relations Board released a report advising companies that policies that prohibit employees from discussing their work conditions or posting certain confidential information are unlawfully interfering with employees' rights to organize. The board last month also determined that a Costco Wholesale Corp. employee handbook violated labor law by prohibiting employees from electronically posting any statements that "damage the Company... or damage any person's reputation." The NLRB's position has raised concerns among some employers.

Some of Atlanta's largest companies have issued guidelines to give workers an idea of what type of behavior is and isn't acceptable online.

For example, Coca-Cola Co. warns employees in its social media policy: "You may come across negative or disparaging posts about the Company or its brands, or see third parties trying to spark negative conversations. Unless you are a certified online spokesperson, avoid the temptation to react yourself."

It also notes that "taking public positions online that are counter to the Company's interests might cause conflict."

Coke trains its online spokespeople through a social media certification program.

Sandy Springs-based UPS instructs employees to "Use social media on your personal time and not on company time," discourages the use of pseudonyms or false screen names online when blogging about work for UPS and directs employees to use an online disclaimer saying their views are not necessarily the views and opinions of UPS.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines said the key message in its social media policy is "use common sense to help protect Delta's image," according to spokeswoman Betsy Talton.

While large companies often have staff and attorneys to study social media issues, most companies are probably not in compliance with all of the federal regulations, according to Appleby.

"There's a lot of naivete right now," he said.



Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: (c) 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)


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