3 Ways to Avoid Social Media Fallout in the Workplace

Best Practices for Social Media in the Workplace

To the extent that events of 2020 across communities in the United States left any room for uncertainty about the current state of our country, the first several months of 2021 have reinforced the existence of social and political divisions among Americans.

For employers seeking to create healthy workplace cultures that reach beyond compliance with existing laws and extend to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in a still-divided country, one of the many challenges revolves around employee use of social media. As the number of platforms continues to expand, social media has a tremendous potential to amplify the voices of the approximately 70% of Americans who utilize one or more of these outlets to connect with each other, and in some instances, a similar ability to impair in-person and virtual work environments.

Although many employees understandably regard their social media activity as “private” and may primarily utilize these platforms to communicate with individuals outside the workplace about a variety of non-work-related topics, most employers recognize the potential impact of these “non-work” communications on workplace culture. Consider these examples:

    • A teacher posts unflattering comments about students on a social media site intended primarily for family and friends. A journalist discovers the site, contacts the school where the teacher works, and writes an article describing the posts.
    • An individual employed as a hearing officer with responsibility for determining applicants’ eligibility for government benefit programs engages in a private, online debate with an acquaintance regarding government assistance programs, and expresses the view that these programs should provide assistance for limited periods of time. The other participant in the debate forwards the comments to the individual’s employer with a demand that the employer investigates whether the hearing officer may be biased.
    • An employee of a financial institution post comments on the employee’s social media platform about the actions of an individual accused of endangering a group of demonstrators protesting an incident of police violence. The platform is accessible to members of the public, some of whom contact the financial institution to demand that it advise whether the comments reflect the institution’s values.

Should the employers in these scenarios discipline the author of the postings? Does it matter whether the authors designated their social media site as public, or whether a member of the individual’s “private” circle disseminated the comments to the individual’s employer? Does it make a difference whether the complaints about the postings are made by co-workers or members of the public?

Whether an employer can and should take action will likely depend upon several considerations. These include whether the employer is a governmental entity (which accordingly must balance the employee’s First Amendment rights) or a private entity, the position held by the author of the posting, and the extent to which the posting impacts or has the potential to negatively impact the confidence of the public in the entity’s ability to carry out its mission or to serve the community in which it is situated, or otherwise disrupts its operations.

Before employee postings become an issue, there are at least three measures that employers can consider to mitigate the likelihood that employee use of social media will adversely impact workplace culture:

    1. Adopt or Update Social Media Policies: Since social media platforms are extensively utilized and the information posted on these platforms is often widely accessible, employers may wish to adopt, and periodically update written social media policies or guidelines.
    2. Educate Employees About the Company’s Expectations: When possible, employers should strive to message the Company’s guidelines and expectations with appropriate frequency. Microlessons can be utilized to reinforce guidelines using short but meaningful real-world examples that require a minimal investment of time for employees to review. In the aftermath of local or national events that generate significant emotion and debate, employers may also consider enlisting members of the Company’s leadership to issue internal communications. The internal communications can acknowledge the impact of current events on members of the workforce, recognize the likelihood that some employees may elect to express views about these events utilizing social media, and encourage employees to remain mindful of the possibility that such communications may be seen by, and impact co-workers and customers in a manner that is inconsistent with the Company’s values. If resources permit, employers may also consider providing tangible examples of communications that could raise concerns for the Company, or guidance about adjusting social media settings, to facilitate compliance with the employer’s expectations.
    3. Connect Social Media Policies to Workplace Culture: Beyond adopting policies and educating employees, it is also essential to consider and communicate the “why.” The tendency of employees to regard their social media activity as private (even when the settings may cause that activity to be publicly accessible) and the belief that the First Amendment protects the rights of all individuals to “free speech” may create barriers that reduce employee receptivity to policies, even when reinforced by periodic training. Employers that are committed to developing a positive workplace culture will acknowledge these realities and invest the necessary time and resources to build an understanding of how and why such speech may erode workplace culture. Among other action items, employers can reinforce acceptable ways of expressing disagreement, remind employees of available mechanisms to raise concerns about their colleagues’ social media postings that the employee may be unable or unwilling to address directly, and identify affinity groups or employee assistance programs that may be able to provide support to express and process emotions associated with current social or political events.

Although social media may provide an opportunity for employers to transform their employees into brand ambassadors, employee social media postings also may strain workplace culture and create reputational risk for a Company’s brand. Providing best practices, educating employees about the Company’s values, and connecting the policy with workplace culture to create a shared understanding of why it is important can help create a strong foundation and minimize the risk of any negative impact on the Company.

If you’d like to learn more about the impact of social media on a company and workplace and how to educate your employees, check out the following microlessons and resources:

Simone Francis
Employment Law Expert
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