Protecting Your Employees (And Your Company's Image) Online

by JD Supra Perspectives

[The latest in a series in which we ask JD Supra contributors to address the perils, legal or otherwise, of online citizenship today, and all that entails. Stay tuned for additional articles on this wide-ranging subject.]

The Internet has been flooded lately with reports of individuals capitalizing on the anonymity of social media to torment others. There is no greater example than that of Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams. Within days of her father’s death, faceless trolls took to Twitter and sent her messages blaming her for the death of her father. Not content to harass Zelda using only words, these trolls also posted pictures of her father altered to show bruises around his neck. Powerless to remove the trolls’ messages herself, Zelda cancelled her account and begged Twitter to take corrective action.

But Zelda is not the only example; staffers at the popular Jezebel website also have been forced to monitor the website daily for a barrage of violent images. Both Twitter and Gawker Media (Jezebel's parent company) vow to take remedial action to prevent the posting of such inappropriate material. Yet both companies are also faced with the same fundamental problem: how do companies eliminate unacceptable content from their websites while still upholding freedom of speech principles? Employers are faced with a similar issue: what practices should be adopted to ensure a safe, legal online environment for their employees? In addition, employers also must consider how to protect themselves from the legal risks involved with employees taking to social media to express their views.

The best and most effective way an employer can combat social media-focused harassment is through education and training on what behavior the company will and will not find acceptable.

It is all too easy to imagine a scenario when harassment creeps into a workplace through social media. Social media-focused harassment can occur as quickly as when one employee posts an inappropriate remark about a personal photo or status update on a co-worker’s site. The harassment could also entail sending an unwelcome sexual comment or picture or other comments directed toward a coworker’s “protected characteristics.” The best and most effective way an employer can combat social media-focused harassment is through education and training on what behavior the company will and will not find acceptable. This includes implementing a social media policy, providing training on the company’s social media policy, offering informal forums to discuss any concerns regarding social media in the workplace, monitoring of his electronic equipment, and quickly disciplining all inappropriate behavior.

Social media and computer use policies are a key starting point. A well-written and comprehensive social media policy clearly communicates social media boundaries for employees, and establishing these boundaries can minimize future costs by placing employees on notice as to what content and behavior is acceptable in using social media. A detailed computer use policy should advise employees that the company’s electronic equipment is subject to monitoring and that employees should not have an expectation of privacy while using company electronic equipment. Careful consideration must be given to the content of both policies to ensure that the company’s position toward social media and electronic equipment use is appropriately communicated, as well as ensuring that the policies comply with the applicable state and federal laws.

Regardless of whether the company encourages employee use of social media or takes a more tepid view of employee social media use, the company should institute mandatory training for all employees. The training should describe social media and its uses, and outline which activities are subject to a company’s social media policy. The training also should point out the permanency of social media and implications for social media use. To the extent employees will be using social media on behalf of the company, a company should provide examples of appropriate posts and discuss legal implications for posting confidential and proprietary information. Employees should be “refreshed” on this training on a regular basis.

Another avenue to properly educate employees on the use of social media and its impact on a company would be to create an open forum where social media issues are discussed. Employees are frequently confused about what constitutes appropriate communication concerning the company. This confusion is amplified by the relaxed standards of what behavior is considered “appropriate” in an anonymous online forum. Compounding the problem, many people may not appreciate the permanency of internet posts. The open forum format encourages an exchange of dialogue to clearly explain which practices the company will not tolerate. Taking the time to educate and discuss these issues can go a long way toward protecting the company.

A well-written and comprehensive social media policy clearly communicates social media boundaries for employees, and establishing these boundaries can minimize future costs by placing employees on notice as to what content and behavior is acceptable in using social media.

Provided that a company has a strong computer use policy, a company may monitor its equipment to ensure employees are complying with company policies and potentially discourage inappropriate social media content. This is especially important in defusing the empowerment many “trolls” feel in anonymously posting improper content. However, a company must comply with the applicable state and federal laws when monitoring employee use of electronic equipment.

In light of the many legal hurdles that must be overcome when using social media in the workplace, many companies would simply prefer to prohibit the use of social media altogether. However, a well drafted social media policy, adequate training and education of employees and ongoing monitoring will better equip a company’s employees to understand the proper use of social media and its implications for the employer. Nonetheless, when an employer discovers inappropriate social media use, it is crucially important that the employer quickly investigate the extent of the improper conduct and issue suitable discipline. Quickly addressing inappropriate social media content not only creates a better and more productive working environment for the company’s employees, it also is an essential step to insulate the company from legal liability.


[Lindsey Hogan is a member of Faegre Baker Daniels’ labor and employment group that covers the spectrum of issues affecting employment relations, employee mobility, and compensation and benefits. She advises employers across the country and focuses her practice on employment litigation and counseling clients regarding proper employment practices and risk management. Lindsey provides clients with a wide variety of services, including serving as litigation counsel, policy and procedure implementation to avoid discrimination litigation, employee handbook review, and retaliatory claim avoidance policies.]

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