The New Water Cooler: Office Social Media Use is Common but Still Cause for Concern

From sending birthday wishes to friends via Facebook and endorsing colleagues on LinkedIn to tweeting about TV shows and posting Instagram photos of family members, social media has become intertwined with how we communicate and experience life.

The workplace is no different.

Certainly, targeted posts aimed at positively shaping a company’s brand or image are well worth the time off the clock. And although many employees will admit to checking their personal sites during office hours, at worst it is usually nothing more than a few minutes of procrastination. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 34 percent of employees surveyed said they go to social media when they need a “mental break” from the job.

So, beyond what is perhaps a slight dip in employee productivity, why should employers be cautious about the use of social media in the work place? Two clearly important concerns include: employees tarnishing an employer’s brand or reputation with clients or customers; and unlawful harassment between coworkers.

An unfortunate example of the former occurred in December when a well-meant tweet from international online file-sharing giant Dropbox, intended to tout the company’s focus on diversity, went awry. The tweet, “Diversity at Dropbox,” listed the company’s latest diversity numbers.

As with any good tweet, it was accompanied by an image, though perhaps not the best one in this particular case. The picture appeared to be four white people and two women – one Asian and one Iranian – who could (and were) easily mistaken as white upon first glance.

The reaction was swift and fierce, with tweets that ranged from mocking memes to demands for Dropbox to fire its marketing team. While Dropbox was able to apologize for and clarify its error, the simple mistake demonstrates how quickly – and often permanently – your company’s hard-earned good reputation or brand can suffer with just one wrong social media interaction.

Harassment in the workplace can be even more troubling. Several courts have concluded that employers have an obligation to prevent co-worker harassment when they are aware of such conduct occurring not only in the workplace but also in settings related to the workplace, which would encompass the online community.

In California, for instance, a man sued for harassment after his co-workers made repeated offensive and derogatory comments about his physical disability on a blog created by one of the co-workers. When the employer learned of the blog, an in-house investigation was conducted that determined several employees were accessing the blog from workplace computers using generic login passwords and identifiable names.

The court noted that while the employer was able to completely block access to the website, it did not take action to do so until two months after learning of the blog. At trial, the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded over $800,000 in damages (Lora Jennings, Thinking Bigger, Business Media Inc.).

Although these examples may seem on the extreme end of the social media spectrum, they actually point directly to why employers should have a clear policy in place regarding employee social media use, according to David Smith, Ph.D., EASI•Consult® president and CEO.  While Smith has several recommendations, he noted that creating policies that are compliant with Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act has become increasingly challenging for employers. That’s because the National Labor Relations Board continues to parse individual words and phrases in employers’ social media policies.

Enforcing a policy can be even more challenging, as the NLRB and counsel struggle to apply the 1930s concept of “protected concerted activity” – which pertains to employees’ right to act in concert to improve their pay and working conditions – 21st century social media activity, notes Philip L. Gordon and Kwabena A. Appenteng (2016).

Although the law lags behind and the NLRB still holds strong as the pioneer for guidance about social media-related employment policies and practices, there are some simple guiding principles to help ease employers’ most common concerns:

Think before you act. Here’s an all too common pattern involving social media in the workplace: an employee makes offensive Facebook posts about job or boss. The manager, in anger, fires the employee. That employee then claims his post is protected under NLRA, and the NLRB agrees. The end result: penalties must be paid.

Consider social media privacy protections. Only review social media activity that is publicly viewable and avoid asking the account holder for his or her password.

Have a policy and follow it. Review and update your existing social media policies, then implement them with consistency. Investigate and address in a timely manner any posts that may be considered threatening or harassing to other employees.

And finally, ensure that employer use of social media (e.g., Tweet) is carefully thought through as demonstrated by the Dropbox incident.

David Smith, PhD, is the president and CEO of EASIConsult®. EASIConsult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASIConsult’s® specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASIConsult®, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.


EASI·Consult® is the registered name for Expert Advocates in Selection International, LLC.
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