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Managing Employee Social Media Behavior: Where is the Line?

 An employee of ours made posts around the presidential election results via a personal social meda account that we found offensive and inapproprite. Can/should we take any action?

Answers

Topic Expert
Regis Quirin
Title: Director of Finance
Company: Gibney Anthony & Flaherty LLP
LinkedIn Profile
(Director of Finance, Gibney Anthony & Flaherty LLP) |

Very difficult issue. If your employee says something that is specifically against your company or any of its customers. Then I think you have the right to say something or act. But anything more, you are infringing on the first amendment. This issue is constantly evolving. My advice - consult an attorney, before you act.

Chris Holtzer
Title: Senior Manager - Strategic Analysis
Company: Sargento
(Senior Manager - Strategic Analysis, Sargento) |

Politically incorrect is a very broad range, so I think the management needs to collectively assess the severity of the infraction. If the statement promotes moral or ethical views that are in conflict with the companies culture, I think you have grounds to ask for an appology or suggest that the employee is not the best fit for your company culture.

The first amendment really doesn't have any ground here, so long as the company is not owned and operated by a governement agency. You have the right to say what you wish, but you also have the responsibility to live with the consequences.

I think Regis said it well. If it effects the company in anyway, then action can and probably should be taken. Remember, the internet is written in ink, not pencil, so you can't really erase the infraction. I think for a first time offense, a public appology is appropriate, but that is assuming the severity of the infraction is minimal.

In order to stay well away from the legal mess of free speach (which I don't think is relavent anyway), I would simply case your action around the companies culture. If the employee has strong beliefs that are in conflict of the companies culture then it is best for you to both go seperate ways. It is what is best for the company and the employee.

Just my 2 cents!

Topic Expert
Cindy Kraft
Title: CFO Coach
Company: Executive Essentials
(CFO Coach, Executive Essentials) |

Excellent points around culture fit, Chris. Which is WHY hiring is so difficult and why fit-for-culture is so critically important.

Another -future- strategy is to be sure your company has a social media policy in place. If you don't have one, establish one.

(Agent, JKS Solutions, Inc.) |

The first question is, does what your employee said reflect at all on your company? Meaning, do the people that follow your employee online even know they work at your company?

If so, then you should pull your employee aside and ask them to remove the offensive statements. Personally I don't have any problem talking to any employee about their behavior if it reflects on the company.

You have the option to hire a law firm who is specializing in this area. There are some out there and some even hang out on linkedin posting "how to" advice. They will inform your company as to their responsibilities to your clients and customers for the actions of your employees including their impact to your clients and customers from the stand point of your employees actions online.

No one cares what individuals do or say, but when it can bleed over to impacting your company reputation or that of your clients and customers you need to have something in place to address those issues.

Microsoft for example monitors all web based social media of all of their employees. They use Sharepoint to associate anything from their employees into a virtual HR record and they use it to determine if they will hire job candidates as well. In the Fortune 50 there is some pretty advanced candidate screening stuff going on. They will basically reject resumes based on what they see online and never interview those people.

I heard about this from a Microsoft vendor who held a seminar about how they helped Microsoft to develop that tool using Sharepoint.

Jim Schwartz
Title: Corporate financial advisor
Company: Wabash Financial Strategies
(Corporate financial advisor, Wabash Financial Strategies) |

You didn't really provide sufficient information to get informed answers. Was the company harmed or were some people just embarrased or uncomfortable? The key question, in my view, is what in the tweet or online profile identifies/connects the employee with the company?

Was the post done via a company computer or phone? Was it done on company time or did it interfere with the employee's ability to perform the job? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes" and there's a company policy covering them, then you should be discussing those specific policy and ethics failures with the employee. That's in addition to the potential judgment failure from publicly voicing an unpopular view, a much stickier topic to pursue unless there is demonstrable harm to the company. Ultimately, though, your decision is whether to do nothing, reprimand or put the employee on probation, or terminate.

Anonymous
(Contract Accountant) |

I am curious about this as well. We have some very outspoken, un PC employees who post to FaceBook. I know it's not strictly in the public eye, but it's definitely not in line with our company or culture.

Topic Expert
Malak Kazan
Title: VP, Special Projects
Company: ERI Economic Research Institute
(VP, Special Projects, ERI Economic Research Institute) |

For more senior level employees, their public communication do impact the company, public relations and deter customers/ clients from their products and services. This is typically suggested in their role description and as previously mentioned in company culture/values.

Phil Bolles
Title: Chief Financial Officer
Company: Global Commercial Strategies Group
(Chief Financial Officer, Global Commercial Strategies Group) |

I agree with Regis and, for those of you who don't believe that the First Amendment is applicable, I am quite surprised.

The "offensive" statements were made on a personal social media account. Whether they were made on company time using company equipment is relevant only with regard to the distraction from their duties as an employee - not much different from time spent playing video games or on innocuous personal email communication.

What I don't get is the willingness of so many of you to engage in censorship of thought and communication through personal media. Have we reached the Orwellian standard in which rational thought and political discourse is prohibited unless it meets the narrow non-offensive PC standards of the elite "big brother" in charge?

About the First Amendment, if you believe that a company can discipline an employee for a picture of him/her posted on Facebook burning the American flag or attending a Tea Party rally, you are inviting a visit from the ACLU. Any other form of speech censorship not directly associated with company communications may well have the same result.

Chris Holtzer
Title: Senior Manager - Strategic Analysis
Company: Sargento
(Senior Manager - Strategic Analysis, Sargento) |

To help illustrate the “Free Speech” issue or non-issue. Think of another scenario:

An employee bumps into the CEO off-sight and insults him/her with an expletive latent rant. You would assume a dismissal would be justified, right? It’s not on the company time, or at the place of work, but that doesn’t absolve the relationship that has now been damaged. Certainly the rant is covered by the first amendment. No legal action could be taken against the employee, but termination or other repercussions are not legal matters. They are private, and at the companies discretion. The same is true for social media. It may be done on your time, in a private setting, but once it is made public (i.e. on the internet) it is now potentially damaging to the company, and the company’s relationships with clientele.

The best way I can describe it is that freedoms of any kind (speech, religion, politics, etc) simply means that you are free to participate in a way you wish without legal repercussions. Actions have consequences, good, bad, and ugly. Just as the government can’t take legal action against the employee for their speech, they can’t take action against the employer for evaluating the impact of that speech on the company and acting accordingly to protect themselves.

I am not an expert in any manner, but that is just my take on it.

Bryan Frey
Title: VP Finance/Corp Controller
Company:
(VP Finance/Corp Controller, ) |

From a legal perspective, the first amendment is cover for most personal communication. However, if you take to FB over the weekend to say that your company's all natural food products actually taste like sawdust, don't expect to have a job on Monday morning. You are entitled to your opinion and your words, but your company is entitled to hire and fire you at will. In the same fashion that you are entitled to accept a job offer or quit at any time.

So the point isn't the first amendment, it's that what you do in your personal life can and often does effect what you do at work. The danger and beauty of "social" is that this behavior and content are far more visible to others than they were before.

Phil Bolles
Title: Chief Financial Officer
Company: Global Commercial Strategies Group
(Chief Financial Officer, Global Commercial Strategies Group) |

I believe that the original question relates to political comments that were made by the employee. My previous comments regarding the First Amendment were also intended to relate to political or other comments that are not about the employer company, its management or its products. To that extent, I believe that the first amendment applies because the employer may not penalize an employee for comments on mainstream social discourse.

However, if the employee makes comments about management, the company or its products, such as those described by Chris Holtzer and Bryan Frey, he/she should be prepared for the consequences of those comments. Depending on protections provided to employees by various state employment laws - if the product really does taste like sawdust, can the employee be compelled to lie to keep his/her job - the consequences may be severe or terminal.

Chris Holtzer
Title: Senior Manager - Strategic Analysis
Company: Sargento
(Senior Manager - Strategic Analysis, Sargento) |

These are very good points Phil. I would challenge that the law prevents action to intimidate or coheres a vote one way or the other. Your vote is private and protected to stay that way. Once you voice your opinions in a public forum of some sort, you have decided to forgo that protected privacy and open yourself up to potential consequences.

I doubt the issue in question has much to do with the political views of the employee, but more in the way those views were conveyed. Leaning left or right, probably isn't the problem, but spewing hateful speech one way or the other paints a character picture of the employee, which can taint the image of the company too. This leads back to the culture profile/image the company wishes to present publicly.

I am making a lot of assumptions, and they may be way off. I am from WI though, were political turmoil has been on the front page of every newspaper for the past year or so. It can bring out the best and worst of folks.

(Agent, JKS Solutions, Inc.) |

I'm not sure anyone really is aware of all the personal rights that have been taken away by the homeland security rules that George W Bush established. Your right to silence is no longer something that is a given either, today you must invoke it and if you then talk to anyone after that point, you have no right to silence. This was decided by the Supreme Court 2 years ago. Basically we are building data banks of all your personal activity and none of it is private and yes it will be held against you. There are a lot of people who harken back to the old ways when privacy meant privacy, but there is no such thing any longer, the laws have been changed and no one is the wiser. In the end this is really a pointless discussion. My advice is to not take things so seriously unless you are willing to put your reputation on the line to back up your beliefs and if you are an employer, and you don't like the use of social media, put some policies in place and tell your employees anything they say can and will be held against them. Read them their rights and you will save yourself a lot of time. We are fast becoming a police state where companies make use of government policies to keep the peace internally rather than using sound management practices where the employees feel safe with job security and feel no need to lash out.

If your company is receiving a lot of negativity online from your employees in the personal accounts that you monitor, then you should look to you management practices and ask how your management team can do a better job. Its not always the employees fault.

And yes, with the big data movement, there is no privacy. With congress approving police drones to fly over your back yards as they please, there is no privacy. With medical data being compiled to follow your entire life for research, there is no privacy.

When you sign up for a twitter account, you agree you have no more rights to where they disseminate your comments and they are not considered private.

This week the courts have ruled that your email sent from work email accounts is not owned by the company whose systems processed it. There is no privacy.

We live in a surveilance society and there are no more protections.

This is what happens to a society that has decided that Voting does not matter.

Oh and by the way, all comments on this site are indexed in Google.

Nothing is private.

Michael Miller
Title: Consultant
Company: Harris and Dickey, LLC
(Consultant, Harris and Dickey, LLC) |
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