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Experts: Develop an employee social media policy

Employees have griped about work among friends at the bar for decades, but what happens when office complaints are shared online for all to see?

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With more than one billion users on Facebook, it’s an anomaly to meet someone that’s outside the circle. While online platforms create a convenient, accessible space for conversation, the stream can also expose unfiltered employee conversations that would otherwise go unbeknown to employers — and some things are better left at home.

“People feel comfortable sharing anything now … it’s no longer talk at the water cooler,” said lawyer Katharine Liao, who teamed up with lawyer Benjamin Gipson to speak on social media work policy at Thursday morning’s seminar, “They Said What on Facebook?”

The overwhelming wave of social media is difficult to ignore, and whether an employer should establish a social media policy is no longer a question, said Gipson. From exposing confidential information to admitting calling in sick for a powder day, posts can lead to a rift — or even a lawsuit — in the workplace.

To help protect workers, six states have enacted password protection laws, so companies can’t request account log-ins during interviews. Some laws even stipulate that “shoulder surfing” — the dreaded hovering problem — is also prohibited.

People don’t realize that things last forever online, Gipson said. Even after deleting, screen captures and web caches can keep unwanted posts alive.

Implementing a policy provides a protective shield in case a discrepancy pops up. To establish guidelines, companies need to consider what the employee limits entail — without overreaching workers’ rights — and how to enforce those rules.

“Creating a policy around social media is new enough that you should talk with your lawyer,” Gipson said. “And we don’t say that about many issues,” Liao added.

Amidst the rapid evolution of technology, online social presence precedents are still being established, which means that court challenges are approached on a case-by-case basis.

In some cases, a Facebook comment that expresses angst in the workplace may not be protected if the remark stems from a solely emotional place, if it is expressed with profanity, or reveals confidential information. However, if comments are exchanged between several colleagues, and an intention of taking proper action with management is evident, the conversation could be protected.

“Sometimes you just have to take social media out of the conversation,” explained Gipson, “and just consider what you would do if it was said in the work place, or at happy hour.”

–Morgan Tilton