Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Considerations for Employers Before Disciplining or Discharging Employees for Online Social Networking Activity

Today, I spoke at a seminar focused on "Employee Documentation and Discharge in Iowa and Nebraska," along with two shareholders in the Dickinson, Mackaman, Tyler, & Hagen employment law practice group, Ann Holden Kendell and Rebecca Boyd Dublinske. In addition to some general topics, I covered a segment focused on adverse employment action in response to employees’ use of social networking web sites. The attendees seemed interested in the topic, so I’ll post some tidbits from that presentation here.

(Note that in an earlier post, I discussed risks employers might face in accessing online profiles of potential employees during the recruiting process. Some of those risks also arise in the context of addressing the issue of online activity of current employees.)

We all know Web 2.0 has dramatically changed our understanding of communication, interaction, and technology. As social networking sites become more and more popular, employers realize more and more employees use these sites. Many employees comment about their work, their employer, or their co-workers online. Sometimes these comments can have serious repercussions for the employer. What an employee does online may:

• Hurt the employer’s reputation, or disparage the company or its officers;
• Disclose proprietary information (maybe even inadvertently);
• Result in vicarious liability for the employer (for example, supervisor harassment via Facebook); or
• Otherwise violate company policies.

The general rule in most U.S. jurisdictions is at-will employment – which allows private sector employers to discipline or fire at-will employees for any or no reason (such as violation of company policy based on online activity). Some exceptions to the doctrine exist, however, and might limit an employer’s ability to respond to employee activity online. Some things to consider before reacting to employees’ use of social networking websites:

How employer accesses the information. Depending on the circumstances, how an employer accessed the offending information might result in liability for the employer, or perhaps undermine the investigation that led to adverse action in the first place. For example, I’ve mentioned that accessing an online profile or social networking group when the user has taken advantage of certain privacy settings might result in an invasion of privacy claim under either state or federal law.

Employment or Union Agreements. In other words, make sure it’s really at-will employment. Employers should be sure discipline or termination wouldn’t be violating the terms of any agreements that are in place.

Discrimination. Similar to concerns in the context of hiring, a social network profile often reveals an employee’s protected status(es). People document their religious beliefs, age, sexual orientation (protected in some states, including Iowa!), and on and on . . . Employers might access information they wouldn’t otherwise know about. And once they see it, there’s no undoing it. Discipline taken after the employer becomes aware of a protected status might support an employee’s later claim that improper considerations – rather than performance – influenced the decision to discipline. Employers should also consider whether a particular disciplinary action might suggest a selective enforcement issue.

Retaliation. Could the content of an online profile be considered protected activity such that discipline would be against public policy, and hence, illegal? If an employee seems to be complaining about work or an employer, consider whether those complaints might be protected.

National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA may protect online commentary if, for example, the content could be considered an effort to organize a union, or somehow related to a labor dispute. Employers should consider whether discipline might be considered an unfair labor practice.

Off-Duty Conduct Statutes or “Lifestyle Discrimination” Statutes. Some states protect an employee’s lawful, off-duty activities. Employers with workers in those states could be pretty limited in how they may react to employees’ online activity.

First Amendment. Public employers must consider First Amendment implications of disciplining employees based on online speech.

Inaccurate Information. Although not really a legal consideration, employers should keep in mind that online profiles often contain inaccurate or misleading information. Sarcastic comments or inside jokes may easily be taken out of context or misunderstood. Employees may also have little control over some content in their profiles (i.e., someone else may post a comment on the employee’s Facebook “wall” or photos of the employee).

Other Practical Implications. For example, consider the public relations issues arising as a result of a “Facebook firing.” Terminations resulting from online activity remain relatively newsworthy, and may garner attention a company would rather avoid by imposing less severe discipline.

This list isn’t all-inclusive, and new issues come up every day. Still, employers would be wise to check with legal counsel before disciplining or discharging an employee for the employee’s conduct online.

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