Category Archives: Workplace Policies

Social Media Part 2: Trashing the Boss

In my previous post, I discussed employer social media policies. Left unanswered was the question: What if an employee trashes the company or their boss? Like many other employment issues, this one is complicated.

The source of the complication is Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. Sec. 157), which protects any employee who “engage[s] in … concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” This applies to all employees, not just union employees. Among other things it means that employees are entitled to discuss with each other the terms and conditions of their employment.

In the social media context, this means that employees may express concerns online about their employers if it can be deemed concerted activity regarding work conditions. So if two or three employees go online and start a discussion of how low their wages are and what they can do to increase them, this is protected, even if they say some unkind things about the boss along the way.

Mere rants by one employee, however, may be punishable. For example, in one case a bartender was fired for griping to his stepsister on Facebook about his pay and insulting his customers. Among other things he called the bar’s customers “rednecks” and said he hoped they choked on glass as they drove home drunk.

This a developing area of the law for employers and there is a lot of online commentary about it. For a comprehensive overview of what’s happening, check out a hot-off-the-press report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Have you had any experiences with employee use of social media?  ~Amy Stephson

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Want a Social Media Policy?

More and more employees are using social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, personal blogs, etc.) on a routine basis.  Why do employers care?  Because employees may get online and merrily create discrimination, hostile environment, or defamation claims, hurt the organization’s reputation or brand, create antitrust liability, or otherwise cause heartburn for the organization and its other employees. 

In earlier posts about Facebook and online romance, we discussed the potential harassment implications of online posts by employees about other employees.  In this post, I’m going to briefly address the kinds of provisions that an employer will want to include if it decides to draft a social media policy for its employees. 

There are a number of theories as to how to draft a social media policy, including advice on how to get employees to actually follow the policy.  Sticking to basics, however,  employers will want to make sure that four points are included one way or the other:

  • Employees are responsible, both legally and generally, for the content of their online activities.  While you likely don’t want to say it in the policy, this means: “Employees, you can be sued or fired for what you say online so be careful!”  Alternatively it means: “Don’t be stupid!”
  • If an employee is discussing anything relating to the employer, e.g., its products and services, the employee must identify him or herself as an employee and make it clear that he or she is not speaking for the company.  In fact, Federal Trade Commission guidelines require an employee who endorses a company’s products or services to disclose the employment relationship. See, www.ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005revisedendorsementguides.pdf.  
  • Employees may not disclose confidential or propriety information about the employer.  No stock tips either: the Securities and Exchange Commission prohibits insider trading tips and this includes tips via social media.  See http://www.sec.gov/answers/insider.htm
  • Employees should not mention clients or other employees without their approval.

If you want to see a comprehensive policy, check out IBM’s “Social Computing Guidelines,” which you can find at www.ibm.com/blogs/zz/en/guidelines.html.  It’s a veritable statute, with a preamble, guidelines, and detailed commentary – and is a good place to start. There are numerous other sample policies online as well.

So what about a policy that tells employees they can’t trash the company or their boss online?  Stay tuned: this is more complicated than you might think.  I’ll write about it in my next post.  In the meantime, do you have any tips on social media policies?   ~Amy Stephson

What did you say?????

The Problem: What is (or is not) appropriate communication in today’s workplace? Seems like a simple question, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s anything but. Take Company A, where the employees are good friends outside of work as well, and have known each other professionally and personally for years. They’re open about their personal lives…including how things are going in the bedroom…and don’t notice when the temp they’ve hired turns red as she hears the conversation going on around her. Appropriate?

Or, how about that construction Company B where “f-bombs” are a regular part of the vocabulary, along with other four-letter words. In this particular setting such language is only acceptable when used to talk about situations – never to talk to or about people. So, it’s alright to say, “f—” when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or to talk about the “sh—y weather” that’s preventing your from pouring concrete. However, when one new hire gets mad at someone and calls him a “f—ing idiot” everyone stops and stares, mortified. How was the new person supposed to know this use of an “f-bomb” was unacceptable, while other uses are OK?

And then there’s the ad agency Company C where employees regularly send x-rated cell phone text messages and pictures to groups of other employees who all work in cubicles in one big space. So, when one person sends out a text or picture to everyone else, the whole room erupts in laughter at the same time. It’s all great fun till a client happens to be walking through on the way to a conference room when this happens, asks what’s going on, is shown the message and becomes outraged. Can what you do with your personal phone get you in trouble at work? Sure – if it’s done on work time or work premises!

What to do: We all know that this is a difficult and complicated issue. What one person finds funny, another finds offensive. One person’s normal way of speaking hurts another person’s sensibilities – or feelings. Everyone laughed at yesterday’s dirty joke, but today several people said the new joke crossed a line – a line which the joke teller didn’t even know was there.

It’s tempting to simply tell people to use “common sense” – except that I’ve learned there is no such thing. You can’t assume that people will define acceptable and unacceptable language the same way. So, if you’re the supervisor or manager, have the conversation with your staff. Talk about what your expectations are – and yes, you get to have expectations about appropriate language in your workplace. Don’t assume people understand things the way you do. Develop and share clear expectations for oral and written communication, for paper, e-mail, instant message, text message and social media communication. Be clear about the use of four-letter words (whether that’s ever acceptable and if so, when) and sexual and racial language (I strongly recommend strictly forbidding all sexual or racial slurs). But also realize that no matter how clear you are, there will be many shades of gray. Make it OK to talk about those shades of gray, and invite conversation if questions come up. You will have come a long way if you set clear expectations, but also appreciate and openly acknowledge the complexity of this issue, and communicate your willingness to talk about it.

Work and Romance: Linked Forever!

 

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and no matter how much we want to deny it, that day exists in the workplace as well as everywhere else.  It turns out that something we all suspected and observed is actually true: lots of romance happens at work – and many of those romances end in permanent relationships and marriages.  According to a recent survey by careerbuilder.com, 40% of those surveyed have dated a co-worker, and one third went on to marry that person.  So, my guess is that the combination of work and romance is likely here to stay.  It also means that the office gossip, accusations of favoritism and allegations of sexual harassment (especially for the 2/3 of those relationships that don’t last) are also here to stay.  What’s an employer to do?

The good news is that there’s a lot you can do.  A few of the most important things are:

  • Provide management and staff with sexual harassment training and give them copies of your policy (you have one, right?); talk specifically about how it applies to workplace romances.  Consider developing a policy about dating in the workplace.
  • Be clear: your harassment or dating policy should forbid relationships between supervisors and their subordinates.  If you work with youth or students, make sure the policy absolutely forbids relationships between them and employees.
  • If a relationship develops between co-workers who work together, address it as soon as you become aware of it.  Meet with the couple, clarify behavior expectations, and move one or both to other work units if at all possible (be sure to talk with them about who will move, and be sure your policy speaks to this).
  • Don’t allow romantic expression (romantic hugs, kisses, whispered sweet nothings…) in the workplace, even between spouses.  It’s simply not appropriate.
  • Reinforce that “no” means “no.”  It means one request for a date or phone number is ok, but if the answer is “no,” there must be no second request, no pursuit of friends to get information about the person, no comments on Facebook.

 

Obviously, romances at work can be exciting, fun and…well…romantic!  They can also be dangerous and expensive pitfalls waiting for the unprepared employer.  So, be clear and be prepared – and Happy Valentines Day!  ~DS

Workplace Gossip: Policies Needed?

Is workplace gossip, “a form of warfare that [brings] everyone down,” as suggested in a recent article in the New York Times? Or as local blogger Michelle Goodman responded, might such gossip also be a force for good that can show people in a good light, clue employees into office undercurrents, or tip everyone off to changes coming down the pike?

In my experience, some workplace gossip is inevitable, but when it rises above a certain level, it is pretty much all bad.  A workplace that is rife with gossip usually means employees who are tense, unhappy, and less productive.  The “office undercurrents” being discussed are rarely positive and the “tip offs” are often inaccurate.

For this reason, excessive workplace gossip shouldn’t be left untreated.  Management may need to increase its communication (of accurate information) to employees, counsel serious offenders, and determine what other problems are creating a poor workplace culture.  Managers and supervisors may also need to examine their own behaviors to see how they are contributing to the problem. 

If it’s bad enough, maybe your organization wants to adopt something like the No Gossip Policy created by Professional Pride Training Co, Inc.  The policy has employees sign a document in which they agree to take several anti-gossip actions.  I particularly like number 6: “I will mind my own business, do good work, be a professional adult and expect the same from others.” 

For more on the advantages of a no gossip policy, see a recent article by HR blogger Susan M. Heathfield. She writes that some companies even terminate employees for violations.

Might there be reasons not to adopt an anti-gossip policy? ~AS