Workers, employers clash on social media
By Janet Lundquist firstname.lastname@example.org November 9, 2011 9:28PM
Federal law permits workers to talk about their working conditions, even online. | AP file photo
Updated: December 11, 2011 8:01AM
Social networking has opened up a whole new world for business. It’s a free vehicle companies can use to get their message out to potentially thousands of people.
But it’s a double-edged sword, as one disgruntled employee with the right passwords — or even just their personal social media account — could ruin that carefully cultivated image.
It’s not clear what legal recourse companies have when employees make them look bad online. The issue has led to more than 100 complaints at the National Labor Relations Board, most filed within the last year.
The National Labor Relations Act protects union and nonunion workers when they participate in “protected concerted activity,” or discussing working conditions together.
Individual employees who disparage their employer online don’t fit into that category, the board has decided.
Uncharted territory for many
Bonnie Covelli gives seminars for area businesses on the use of social media for marketing as part of her job as director of University of St. Francis Solutions.
Having a strategy for social networking in place is vital to maintaining control over the company’s Internet presence, she said.
If employees are aware of the consequences if they make the company look bad online — being fired, for example — they are less likely to do it, she said.
Coming up with the specifics on what employees can and can’t say online, however, is more complicated.
“It’s an interesting world out there,” Covelli said. “All of these regulations are still being decided on. How do you enforce it? There’s no easy answer to that.”
Overly broad Internet policies can be a problem, too, if they restrict the federally protected right to discuss working conditions.
Social networking is still uncharted territory for a lot of businesses, a fact that surprised Laura Donovan, director of social media for Plainfield-based marketing firm The Word Pro.
“It’s really hard to control what people put on their personal pages, and even seeing what people put on their pages,” Donovan said. Employees posting negative comments about their employers could be a reason to fire them, she said.
“Even though it’s their personal page, it’s still slander,” she said.
Some courts agree with Donovan. Earlier this month a judge ruled in favor of a BMW dealer in Lake Bluff that fired an employee last summer for photos he posted on Facebook that mocked a vehicle accident at another dealership in the same company.
A blessing for nonprofits
It’s not always current employees that cause problems for their employer.
Often what happens in smaller companies is a staff member will create the company’s Facebook page or Twitter account, Donovan said. Then that employee leaves the company, and the business’ social media is at his or her mercy.
She suggested that companies educate management on how to run the company’s social media sites to avoid the possibility that a disgruntled employee could ruin the company’s online profile.
Lisa Morel Las, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties, is active on the organization’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Social networking has been a “godsend” for the nonprofit agency, allowing the organization to get its message out to a large number of people for free, she said.
To accomplish that, she and several of her staff frequently update the Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“I just trust them that they’re going to write appropriate things,” Las said. She added that any posting that violates the Big Brothers Big Sisters Internet policy — whether it’s on the organization’s page or the employee’s personal page — could be grounds for dismissal.
The policy says staff cannot post confidential information or client information, nor anything demeaning to anyone at Big Brothers Big Sisters or to clients.
Las counts on notifications from Facebook to let her know when someone posts something on the organization’s page, so she can delete posts immediately if necessary.
School policies differ
Enforcing an Internet policy is time consuming, and coming up with the policy is another involved process.
The Minooka High School District recently decided against adopting an Internet policy suggested by the Illinois Association of School Boards, choosing instead to work with teachers and staff to come up with a policy that more specifically addresses the district’s needs.
The district already urges staff to use common sense and make good choices about what they post online and how they use social media, said district Spokesman Dave Dilorenzo.
“The staff is very tech-savvy. The teachers have done an outstanding job of incorporating technology in their classrooms,” Dilorenzo said.
Teachers use class websites, Facebook and Twitter to connect with students and parents. One teacher Tweets reminders about homework and tests.
Any message the district sends through its phone system to notify parents of happenings at the schools is also posted to the district’s Facebook page, Dilorenzo said.
Despite the potential for disaster if employee relations go south, experts agree businesses should not shy away from social media.
“If you’re a business, you’re missing out” if you’re not using social media, Donovan said, while stressing that businesses should still use traditional marketing to get their message across. “This is where it’s at. If you’re not on here, you’re really missing a great opportunity.”
Associated Press contributed to this story.