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The social media trap

Limiting social media sharing harder to do if employers ask employees to interact online

By Jeffrey R. Smith

It’s pretty safe for employers to assume that the vast majority of their employees are active on social media. There are always a few holdouts, but most people have access to the Internet in some way and have at least one social media account — be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other sites that seem to pop up all the time. And with the prevalence of social media, it’s almost inevitable that employees will — at some point in time — post something related to their work.

It’s been discussed in this space before what employers can and can’t do in regards to policing what employees say about them on social media. And there have been numerous legal decisions — with more coming out all the time, it seems — addressing employees who have posted things on social media that could negatively affect the employer or the workplace.

There was, for example, the employee who threatened managers and co-workers on Facebook, the one who insulted a top customer online, the one who insulted a co-worker with regards to a distinctive physical characteristic, the one who live-tweeted his employer’s mass dismissal, and the one who posted pictures online performing misconduct at work that cast the employer in a negative light — these are just a few instances of circumstances that courts and arbitrators have dealt with.

In some cases, the employee’s actions warranted dismissal, or at least discipline. If there was no potential harm to the employer, then not much might come of it. Of course, threats or the revealing of confidential information would be serious misconduct that have an impact on the workplace and the employer, regardless of whether the posts were made during working hours or while off-duty.

Employers can help protect themselves from undesired posts by employees — and help employees understand what is acceptable and what isn’t — with clear and concise social media policies. Obviously, employers can’t control how employees use their personal social media accounts, but they can make it clear that anything related to their work or that casts the company in a bad light can bring consequences.

While it’s easy to tell employees not to post anything related to their work on their personal accounts, what does it mean if employers invite employees to cross that line. There are many instances of employers asking — or even ordering — employees to follow, “like,” or enter comments on company websites and social media accounts.

This can be done to generate activity on a site get the word out if the site is new. But once an employee is encouraged to foster ties online with her employer, does this change the employer’s right to request employees avoid talking about their employment?

It’s something to consider when employers ask employees to link to their sites through the employees’ social media accounts. It’s one thing to ask employees not to identify themselves as employees on social media, but once their social media accounts have links to the employer online, the cat might be out of the bag.

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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