October 24, 2014

Social Media Policies: Permissible Employer Regulation

Joel Jacobson_pictureBy Joel Jacobson

Social media use is rapidly increasing and has become central to the workforce. Employers recognize that public information posted online is useful for monitoring employee activity and the portrayal of the company. However, new technologies result in unintended, legal consequences. Recently, an Applebee’s waitress was terminated after posting a customer’s receipt on reddit and the SEC warned Netflix’s CEO that his Facebook post might trigger securities regulations. Colorado attorneys should pay attention to legal developments within the social media context because the appropriate level of employer regulation of employee social media use remains unsettled.

Many laws are potentially implicated when an employer improperly regulates or misuses information from social networking sites. Notably, Anti-Discrimination laws (ADA, Title VII, ADEA), Stored Communications Act, National Labor Relations Act (protecting concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection), Lawful Off-Duty Conduct, and common law privacy claims should be considered. Recent decisions have targeted social media policies that are wide sweeping and impinge on protected employee action. In fact, rulings by the NLRB led large, publicly traded companies including GM, Target, and Costco to rewrite their social media policies.

The chairman of the NLRB explains that social media is the “new water cooler” and that current government regulation results from “applying traditional rules to new technology.” Application of the traditional rules takes place on a case-by-case basis and the NLRB found it permissible to terminate a single employee whose internet posts harmed the company and had no relation to protected activity. Workers have the right to talk with each other for the goal of improving pay, benefits, and working conditions. As such, social media policies should be revisited to determine whether they are too restrictive. Courts will look to company policies, procedures, and conduct so it is essential that Colorado attorneys help draft guidelines tailored to accomplish a specific, lawful end.

Employers will continue to turn to lawyers for guidance in this developing area of law. To this end, Colorado lawyers should know that employers must not access employee, online information by deceitful means. Also, common law privacy claims can be addressed with a written policy that defeats an employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Finally, a savings clause in a social media policy can explicitly state that the policy is not meant to prevent employees from engaging in protected, concerted activity.

Joel Jacobson is a Contracts and Operations Associate with H.B. Stubbs Company, LCC – a national design and fabrication firm headquartered near Detroit, MI for exhibits displayed by technology and automotive companies. He focuses on contracts, employment law, and a variety of non-legal business issues. Joel serves on the Executive Council of the Denver Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and has an interest in topics impacting start-up companies in the Denver entrepreneurial community. He can be reached by email at jmjacobson1@gmail.com or on Twitter @J_m_Jacobson.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

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