Social Media In The Work Place: Should You “Friend” Your Co-Worker?

Over the past few years, social media has become a dominate force in our every day lives.  Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Gmail and Gchat are just a few of the social media options that keep us connected with friends, family and now, co-workers.  While the use of social media in the work place has continued to grow and evolve, the employer’s understanding of how social media can be harmful is still uncharted territory.

Employee misuse of social media comes in different forms, from the obvious to the seemingly benign.  Misuse can include 1) disclosures of an employer’s trade secrets and proprietary information; 2) an employee leaking confidential information such as marketing tactics or pricing strategies to the public; 3) statements broadcast by employees in violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act; 4) endorsements that violate Federal Trade Commission regulations; or 5) employee posting of inappropriate, discriminatory, harassing, or potentially criminal content.

FACEBOOK: While most conduct does not constitute a gross disclosure of business strategy or criminal activity, seemingly simple, nonthreatening conduct such as checking personal emails while at work, “friending” a co-worker or potential employee on Facebook, or even having employees promoting themselves and the business on Facebook can lead an employer to unexpected liability.  While many may argue that  “friending” a co-worker or a potential employee can assist with networking among the office and promote collegiality in the workplace, it also can lead to unexpected consequences.

Social media is a forum for many to reveal characteristics about themselves that an employer might not otherwise have knowledge, and which may be protected.

TWITTER:  While the complex relationship between Facebook and the employer is starting to make its way through the legal system, Twitter is making its own splash in the business world.  Twitter has become the new frontier of social media.  With 140 characters, you can reach thousands of people instantly.  You can tweet your favorite celebrity, pose a question to the Twitterverse, and even just say what is on your mind.  But what happens when Twitter and your business collide?  How much damage could 140 characters really do?  If you tweet for your business, who owns your “followers” if you were to leave the company?

While these questions sound like abstract, these are real, legal questions being asked of a Northern District of California Court Judge.  Recently, a California company, which provides news on mobile devices sued a former employee for misappropriation of trade secrets, conversion, interference with prospective economic advantage, and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?  As a business owner, take steps to protect yourself from the pitfalls of social media.  While legal experts watch for the results of pending lawsuits involving social media, it is important that employers take steps to protect their information.

  • Address both social media use and ownership within policy manuals and contracts.

Employee use of social media during work hours should be outlined in company policies, and should be communicated to employees so that they fully understand the specific limitations of the policies.  This includes policies governing employee use of the Internet, social networking and e-mail on company equipment.  If social media is being used to further the business in any way, then the ownership and use of the accounts should also be outlined and established in a policy manual or contract and communicated to employees.

  • Remember Employee Privacy Expectations.

Employee’s privacy is still protected, despite their willingness to use social media to discuss their personal information with the world.  A recent amendment to the Illinois Right to Privacy Act prohibits employers from requesting that employees or prospective employees hand over passwords for their social networking accounts.

  • Talk to a Lawyer

Lawyers around the country are monitoring pending cases waiting for some precedent to be set on how to handle these difficult issues.  Until then, it is important to talk to a lawyer who understands the complex nature of employment law, as well the law surrounding social media usage to help protect both themselves and their employees.

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