Writing legal social networking policies: 3 keys

IT managers are being called on to help their businesses write or revise social networking policies for their companies. And thanks to some recent legal activity, organizations now have to worry about whether their policies will get them sued.

A common clause in many social networking policies is that employees are forbidden from making disparaging remarks about the company online. However, that practice has come under fire recently as some employment law attorneys say those restrictions run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gives employees the right to freely discuss their working conditions.

One recent case involved five employees who were fired by a Buffalo, NY, nonprofit organization after badmouthing the employer on Facebook. The employees left several comments on each others’ profiles, mostly complaining about being overworked.

One of the posts mentioned by name another co-worker, who had allegedly complained that the employees weren’t doing enough work. That co-worker saw the posts and notified their supervisor, who fired the five employees.

The fired employees took their case before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which ruled in their favor, and ordered the employer to rehire the workers. The judge said employees had right to discuss their working conditions, whether the discussion took place online or in person.

Similar arguments have been made in previous lawsuits, as well (read about one case that was recently settled here). Companies will want to keep that in mind as they create and enforce social networking policies for employees.

While much of the legal picture is still unclear, here are some social networking policy guidelines to follow:

  1. Have rules against harassment — Regular sexual harassment and racial discrimination policies should apply to online posts. Companies can be sued for allowing employees to make disparaging remarks about co-workers’ race, sex, age, etc., online.
  2. You can protect the company’s reputation — Other cases where employees insulted customers, for example, have been ruled in favor of the employer.
  3. Consider the context — Before taking any disciplinary action based on an employee’s online post, companies will have to consider whether it’s just a case of an angry employee complaining to people outside the company, or if it could be construed as an attempt get co-workers talking about their working conditions.

To read the full text of the NLRB’s decision, click here.

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