Growing Social Media Use Among Employees Necessitates Employer Response
Blogger Heather Armstrong knows first hand about the legal issues involving social media and the workplace. At a Friday program of the American Bar Association Annual Meeting, “Legal Issues From the Social Media Explosion: The Workplace,” Armstrong shared how posts criticizing her boss and co-workers on her blog, Dooce.com, got her fired.
“I felt like I had ended my life,” shared Armstrong. “I was valedictorian at my school, I graduated with honors from college, and here I was getting fired for doing something really, really dumb.” Her advice today to bloggers: “Be ye not so stupid.”
Armstrong’s experience at the intersection of social media and the workplace eight years ago resonated enough with the online community to coin the term “dooced,” meaning getting fired for something you’ve written on your website.
After getting dooced in 2002, Armstrong ignited a debate on privacy that continues today as social media explodes in popularity. Facebook recently announced more than 400 million worldwide users. Along with Twitter, Facebook posted triple-digit growth last year, and in America, social networking overall now accounts for 25 percent of all activity on the Internet, according to statistics from Nielsen Wire. Additionally, according to a recent study, nearly one-quarter of employees use social networks while at work.
Such tremendous growth in social network use, especially in the workplace, combined with the increasing use of mobile devices and new Web 2.0 technologies that make it easier to connect with others via the Internet, have only amplified the debate on employer and employee rights.
While it is still unclear how much control employers can exert over their employees, according to panelist Marylee Abrams, a legal expert on social media, it is vital for companies to develop social media policies to develop boundaries for their employees.
“If you have an employee using a smart phone at work and he is texting about things that are happening in the workplace, it is possible that the employee is creating a business document that could be discoverable should there be any type of litigation. How are you going to get control over that?” asked Abrams. “You do that through your social media policies.”
To help employers, Abrams listed several elements of good social media policies.
- Custom-fit policies to address the specific business and its technology, and update them when new technologies are acquired.
- Consider use of social networks at work and during personal time. Also, policies should cover technology belonging to the workplace as well as employee-owned technologies, such as smart phones.
- If an employee writes about the company, she must include a disclaimer that states that the employee’s opinions are not necessarily the company’s; the employee should also identify her employment relationship with the company.
- Create boundaries for business relationships. “Managers should not ‘friend’ their employees online,” said Abrams.
- Regulate or prohibit the use of company name and logo.
- Advise employees that they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mails, computer use or other employer-provided technology.
- Prohibit dissemination of sensitive and confidential company information.
- Train employees on the policy.
- Clearly define the company’s expectations and consequences for violating the policy, and be consistent in messaging.
Despite the importance of social networking policies, less than 30 percent of employers have them, according to a Manpower report.
If employers have any doubt about the power of social media, Armstrong—who still blogs—shared a recent personal story about her broken brand-new washing machine. After getting nowhere with the company after several attempts to get the machine replaced, she took to Twitter to share her frustration with her 1.5 million followers. The very next day, a company vice president called and immediately got her washer fixed.
“Legal Issues From the Social Media Explosion: The Workplace” was sponsored by the Tort, Trial and Insurance Practice Section.
In addition to Armstrong and Abrams, the session also included social media legal expert Kenneth Kunkle.