Just because it’s trendy to tweet doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for the workplace.
As Facebook and Twitter have become a part of the country’s everyday vernacular, use of social networking sites at work has been on the rise. And it has created some complex ethical, legal and interpersonal challenges for both employers and employees.
Is it appropriate for managers to “friend” their staff? Can an employee’s personal posts be grounds for discipline in the office? Can a manager’s access to an employee’s Facebook page increase the risk for discrimination and invasion of privacy claims?
An August 2009 survey by the Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics revealed that 24% of employers have had to discipline an employee for activities on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. According to attorney Shanti Atkins, president and CEO of ethics and compliance training specialist, a myriad of problems can arise from social networking in the workplace.
“Employees may forget they have ‘friended’ their managers and then post negative content about their job or their boss,” said Atkins. “And an employee may disclose information that calls into question credibility and capability on the job.”
What social networking does is blur the lines between personal and professional, as well as between manager and subordinate, which makes the relationship especially challenging, said Atkins.
“Then there are the issues that arise from the style of communication in the social networking world,” said Atkins. “It’s instantaneous, with no censor, no filter and not self-monitoring. An indelible electronic footprint is left behind for the employee, the manager, the employer and potentially a jury.
Based on a recent jury verdict against the restaurant chain Houston's, a friend request from a boss could be a potential violation of the Stored Communications Act, said Atkins. The Act prohibits unauthorized access to electronic communications stored at a third-party service provider, such as Facebook. “The gist of the case is that if the request comes from a direct supervisor, and the employee senses potential negative repercussions to saying ‘no,’ the supervisor's access may be considered coercive and not consensual,” she said.
Atkins advises employers to not only have a policy that discourages or prohibits bosses from “friending” employees; the policy should also specifically state that any employee may reject any friend request without repercussion. “This helps to address concerns about retaliation and potential coercion.”
Finally, said Atkins, it’s essential for employers not to rely solely on written policies when it comes to managing technology in the workplace. “The rules and guidelines need to be brought to life with engaging and interactive training that is memorable, realistic and compelling,” she said. “Nobody reads policies. For an issue such as social networking, online training is ideal, because the training program can actually simulate the very issues you are trying to address.”