Social Media in the Workplace

Date: September 27, 2010

This is the second of two articles on the potential legal issues that can arise from the use and misuse of social media in the workplace. Part 1 covered the use of social media in the pre-employment setting. Part 2 covers the use of social media in employment and post-employment situations.

Social media is changing communications between employers and employees and among co-workers.

Employee communications

The employee newsletter is out and the company Facebook group is in. Employees of the 21st century want a different relationship with their employer and co-workers than that of prior generations. They are used to receiving information that is current and relevant to them, and they expect the same ability to preselect and customize the information they receive in the workplace. Employees want to be able to ask questions and provide feedback to management. With more employees teleworking or working from multiple locations, they want the ability to communicate with their co-workers. Today's workers like to create their own news in their personal lives and share it with others electronically, and they expect to be able to do the same with their work lives.

The International Association of Business Communicators Research Foundation & Bucks Consultants surveyed 1,500 employers in June 2009. An astonishing 97% of the employers said that they frequently use social media to communicate with their employees. Of these, 19% reported occasional use, with only 1% reporting that they used social media rarely or never. Whether by company emails, an intranet website, Facebook group or other tools, clearly social media have become critical to employer/employee communications.

Social media usage policies

Just as employers adopted internet and computer use policies in the 1990's, now they are developing social media usage policies. These policies can be part of the company's electronic communications usage policy or a stand alone policy. The key to an effective social media usage policy is frequent adaptation to new technologies and programs, new legal requirements related to both technology and the workplace, and communication with employees.

Distractions and productivity

Employers worry about lost employee productivity due to the distractions of social media in the workplace. The temptations to communicate with their friends and family members are everywhere. Text messaging, cell phones and instant messaging provide near instantaneous dialogue which can be more interesting than the daily work assignments. Twitter feeds and other alerts are used to notify blog followers when a new posting has been added. Younger workers are used to multitasking. They made their way through high school and college with laptops, iPods, and cell phones, and can write a paper, text a friend, and download music simultaneously while watching television and talking with friends. They want their work lives to function the same way their personal lives do with constant stimulation and communication.

Do employers have the right to force their employees to focus on the task at hand and not use social media while at work? The courts are still working that issue out, but at least one federal court has suggested that employers might have the right to prevent employees from accessing blogs while at work. Nickolas v. Fletcher, 2007 U.S. Dist. Lexis 23843 (E.D. Ky. 2007).


An employer might want to monitor its employees' online conduct while at work. The argument goes something like this: "The employee is on my time, in my facility, and using my computer equipment. Why shouldn't I be able to monitor what's going on?"

Any monitoring should be done with care. In Pietrylo v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, 2008 WL 6085437 (D.N.J. 2008), a Newark jury found that the employer violated the federal Stored Communications Act by secretly monitoring employees' postings on a private password-protected Internet chat room. This followed an earlier case, Konop v. Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., 302 F.3d 868 (9th Cir. 2002), where the court also held that secret monitoring by an employer of a password protected website visited by an employee while at work violated the federal Stored Communications Act.

However, earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a public employer's review of an employee's text messages on an employer-issued device was a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. City of Ontario v. Quon, No. 08-1332, 560 U.S. ___ (2010). This case involved the use of a pager issued to the employee by the employer. The employer authorized a set number of text messages per month and allowed employees to pay for any overage. Employees were not prohibited from using the pager to send and receive personal text messages. The employer noticed that one employee had an excessive number of text messages and asked its service provider for copies of the text messages from that employee's phone. It found messages to the employee's wife and girlfriend. The employee claimed that his privacy had been violated. The lower court had held that the service provider violated the Stored Communications Act when it provided the employee's text messages to the employer. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the employer had a right to see text messages sent and received on the employer's pager. While this case involved a public employer (and courts have typically allowed greater employer control of public employees), the court clearly stated that employees do not have an expectation of privacy when using equipment provided by the employer.

Other Worries

Employers have more serious potential issues than lost productivity to worry about. Social media tools present an easy method of accessing and communicating information. This can include the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information. While the concerns about unauthorized disclosure using social media tools are similar to unauthorized disclosure in more traditional ways, now the disclosure is at the click of a mouse to multiple recipients. Unauthorized disclosure can include the business plans and information of clients as well as those of the employer.

Unfortunately, social media tools can also be used to harass co-workers. What might be a harmless exchange of jokes or photos between friends can take on a new life when they are spread around the office. The seemingly innocent friend request on Facebook from a co-worker can take on new meaning. How does a female employee respond to a "friend" request from her male supervisor?

The technology behind social media presents another new challenge to employers, the inability to effectively respond to misinformation. A fleeting complaint lingers forever and can be accessed or rebroadcast by other employees or those outside of the company. Information remains in cyberspace indefinitely. The employer's response to misinformation or even a later retraction by the defaming party is unlikely to reach all who received the initial communication. Any communication issued by an employee is seemingly valid, even when the employee is a self-appointed company "spokesperson."

Employers might consider charging employees who misuse social media at the workplace with using company equipment inappropriately and follow appropriate disciplinary measures. The social media usage policy should provide for discipline for abuse of the policy and explicitly state that social media may not be used to violate other employer policies, including harassment and non-discrimination policies.

Internal investigations

In a June 2009 survey, Proofpoint asked US employers to report on internal investigations at their companies in the past 12 months. The results of the survey show that employers do have a reason to be concerned about leaks of confidential or proprietary information. Employers reported conducting investigations of leaks by:

  • Email - 43%
  • Blog or message board - 18%
  • Video - 18%
  • Facebook and LinkedIn - 17%
  • Twitter or SMS texts - 13%

The same employers also reported on the results of their investigations, with a substantial number finding violations of company policies. The rates of employees disciplined or terminated for policy violations were:

  • Email - 31% terminated
  • Blog or message board - 17% disciplined, 9% terminated
  • Video - 15% disciplined, 8% terminated
  • Social networks - 8% terminated
  • Twitter/SMS texts - no reported actions

Employer responses

Employers can take a number of measures to reduce the problems that can arise from the use or misuse of social media. As a first step, employers should remind their employees that they have no expectation of privacy when using the employer's electronic equipment or network. This includes employer supplied smart phones, voice mail, and email. Next, employers should review and update as necessary their internet usage policies to include the use of social media and clearly state what employee actions will result in discipline or even termination.

To address the potential misuse of social media, a social media usage policy should prohibit the use of the employer's name by employees outside of official company communications. The policy also should discipline employees for posting any negative statements about the employer or any derogatory comments about the employee's co-workers or supervisors.

Whether it is two pizza parlor employees abusing food for their YouTube video or anonymous misstatements on a blog about a company's products or services, an employer's reputation can be easily and speedily damaged through the misuse of social media tools. Postings favoring the employer's competitors or slamming its customers, or, in the case of associations, its members, can also be detrimental and the intentional disclosure of confidential employer information can be devastating.

Employer social media policies should prohibit:

  • Disclosure of confidential employer information
  • Discrimination against or harassment of co-workers
  • Using the employer's trademarks
  • Infringing the intellectual property rights of others
  • Making statements adverse to the employer's business interests or reputation
  • Criticism of customers or business partners
  • Statements supporting competitors
  • Obscenity

Legal limitations

Multijurisdictional employers may face inconsistent laws when trying to establish uniform policies for their employees. Some states prohibit an employer from acting with respect to employee activity that is not related to the employer or is not on working time. In addition, there are laws that protect concerted activity by employees - the protected right of employees to discuss common issues related to the workplace (these are the laws protecting labor unions). There are also laws that protect complaints related to the violation of workplace laws such as state and federal whistleblower laws. However, employees do not have a right to engage in activity injurious to the employer that does not fall within these limited exceptions. Employers should consult with counsel before establishing policies or taking steps to address the misuse of social media by their employees.

Off- duty conduct

Employers can tread over the line when they attempt to discipline employees for their off-duty conduct. Many states have off-duty conduct laws that prohibit employers from basing employment decisions on legal activities of employees outside of work time. Employers need to be aware of the state laws applicable to each of the jurisdictions where their employees are located to avoid violating these laws.

Postings complaining about the employee's work, the employer, supervisors, or co-workers or postings critical of the employer's product or service can be grounds for disciplinary action up to and including termination. For example, a teacher who was fired for an inappropriate MySpace page sued the employer and lost in Spanierman v. Hughes, 576 F. Supp. 2d 292 (D. Conn. 2008). Even when the conduct does not rise to the level of disciplinary action, it can cause the employer to question the employee's maturity or judgment.


Former employees who left on their own or maintain a positive relationship with their former employer, supervisor and co-workers rarely raise concerns about the potential for harm to the employer through their online activities. However, the disgruntled former employee is a different story. Just as they are not concerned about the bridges they burn, these employees are not worried about the potential consequences of the statements they publish online or their tweets about their former employer, supervisor and even co-workers. The potential for a defamation claim against the former employee can be great. Alas, the opportunity to collect damages is not great.

Some employers have a real concern that confidential information will be released by disgruntled former employees. Requiring employees with access to confidential information, as a condition of employment, to sign a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement which remains in effect following the termination of the employment relationship is one way to address this potential problem.

Social media non-compete

Employers who sanction employee blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter accounts, and other means of communicating through social media often do not think through the consequences of setting up these accounts with one employee as the face of the company. What happens when the employee who has been regularly posting blogs on behalf of the company decides to leave? Who owns the profile? Who owns the content? More importantly, who owns the followers? Even if the now former employee does not object to the employer taking over his blog, what if the employer does not have the login name and password?

To address these issues, savvy employers are having their employees sign social media non-competition agreements. Under these social media non-competes, the profile, content and followers of a blog or other communication tool belong to the employer. These agreements are more akin to a non-solicitation agreement than a traditional non-compete. They are difficult (if not impossible) to enforce but they clearly define the intent of the parties if the employer sees litigation (or alternative dispute resolution) as a necessary step to protect its brand or marketing position.


The now widespread use of social media in and outside of the workplace is not the end of the world as we know it. True, the situations employers can face are different, and small problems can very quickly magnify and multiply. But the sensible employer will respond appropriately, working with its employees to identify appropriate social media usage policies and exploiting the communication benefits that social media can bring to the workplace of the 21st century.