By Kerin Stackpole
The explosion of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus coupled with the collision of generations in the workplace is presenting challenges to management and employee expectations about privacy. Generally, younger employees are native technology users and are accustomed to sharing information online that their older co-workers might have only shared with friends over dinner. This means that the boundaries that used to separate a person’s work and personal lives are becoming blurred.
This propensity to share becomes an issue when employees make posts about work on their personal Facebook or Twitter pages that an employer finds unfavorable. Some employers seek to control this behavior with restrictive policies or punishment. At this point, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) can get involved. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) dictates that conversations that occur online may be just as protected as a conversation between employees in the break room or at a bar after work as long as they deal with the employees’ concerted efforts to address or improve working conditions. That said, the law does not protect purely individual activity that is unrelated to gathering support to improve workplace conditions, regardless of where it takes place. In other words, employee comments on social media sites are generally not protected if they are simply badmouthing their employer or airing personal gripes.
Employees have a “common law duty of loyalty” to their employers. This means that you cannot trash your employer publicly without consequence. The employer has the right to set expectations so that employees meet this duty. Creating and enforcing a rigid social media policy is the wrong focus for employers trying to control their online image. Rather, if you concentrate on regulating employee speech, you are approaching the issue on the back end. I advise employers to engage their employees up front. Enhance communications with them. Get their feedback, keep them informed and make them part of the accountability process for success.
Mark Heyman, director of Human Resources at Logic Supply in South Burlington, Vermont and Linda Lulli, Associate Vice President for Human Resources at Bryant University and a director on the national board of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, have done just this. At Logic Supply, Heyman decided to forgo a formal social media policy in lieu of guidelines on the use of social media in the workplace. “At Logic Supply, our approach is based on who and what we are as a company,” said Heyman. “When we rolled out our social media initiative a year and a half ago, we issued guidelines and adopted a policy of constant and open communication and engagement with employees. We keep up a very open dialogue and make sure employees understand what is private and what is not. For us, it’s the culture that matters a heck of a lot more than what is in writing. And, in the past year or so, I have not had one single issue with inappropriate comments.”
At Bryant, the University launched an internal portal that lets members of campus groups connect and communicate online. For example, if someone misses a meeting of the process-improvement group, he or she can read minutes and continue the conversation online. In addition, all newsletters are now electronic. “We look at the Internet as a tool, or an opportunity, to engage employees positively and to turn them into ambassadors for the University. We asked ourselves: How can we connect community members to broader university initiatives that they may not hear about from their manager, or in their specific workspace? We have learned how to channel information and to encourage knowledge and information sharing on the web. When it is done in a positive way, the technology sets its own tone that benefits employers and employees.”
Employee engagement clearly takes many forms, but is worth the investment. If you are communicating with your employees in a positive way—through town-hall-type meetings, team “huddles,” company newsletters, and fostering connections between supervisors and employees—employees are less likely to want to complain about you online. They might even post something nice that can go viral. If your employees are going to talk about you, you want it to be positive.
Kerin E. Stackpole, Esq., Of Counsel at Burlington, Vermont law firm Paul Frank + Collins, is a labor and employment litigator with more than twenty years of experience. She spends most of her time guiding senior leaders on issues of legal compliance and best practices for workforce development and engagement. Kerin is an honors graduate of Wheaton College, Norton, MA and the Washington College of Law, American University, and has been recognized by her peers for inclusion in Best Lawyers and Chambers (USA).