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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Social Media Conflicts at Work

According to the number of seminar emails and fliers I'm receiving the new "hot topic" in employment law is how social media impacts the employee/employer relationship. I've begun to see this within our own walls. This truly is a new area where mistakes can be made and relationships can be damaged if everyone doesn't know and observe the appropriate social and legal boundaries.

Most of the problems created by Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkIn accounts revolve around two issues: employee criticism of employer and supervisor and the unwelcome reading of personally posted on-line material by supervisors and co-workers. For the employee there are risks from posted materials meeting the legal definitions of libel, slander, breaches of confidentiality with the employer's private information, and conduct that damages the employer's brand or other protectable interests. For the employer, especially supervisors, the risk is invasion of privacy and arbitrary or capricious employment actions taken on the basis of private or non-work communications.

For reasons of space and brevity I won't go into legal details, but if you're interested in a typical case you can research Pietrylo v. Hillstone Restaurant Group for more information.

So what are the boundaries? Nobody is totally sure because the precedents from case law are still being decided. From my perspective here are some common sense guidelines to keep everyone out of trouble.

  1. Be gracious and kind in your comments. If what you say isn't negative or unfair you can skip everything else below.
  2. If you want to post private information for your friends and family only, make your social media pages private. You can't say on the one hand that this is your personal and private information and then post it publicly on the web.
  3. This isn't an absolute protection. If your page is private and you have 50 co-workers as followers the impact of a negative comment about your company or supervisor is the same as if you said it in the hallway in front of a group of 50.
  4. Don't divulge confidential information about your employer or anyone else.
  5. If you read information on someone else's private page, repeating it is the same as overhearing a hallway conversation or eaves-dropping on someones phone. Sometimes telling a supervisor what you read on someones social media page is justified (abuse, threats of suicide, illness, etc...) and that's up to each individual's ethics.
  6. If you read something on someones Facebook or Twitter that offends you, follow someone else. Its not a matter about which to complain to your supervisor or co-workers.


  1. If an employee's page is private, don't seek the information that's on it. You can get the password from a co-worker or log in on a PC where a saved cookie gets you in, but its the equivalent of looking through a keyhole.
  2. If you cruise your co-workers or employees' social media pages and you get offended, whose fault is that?
  3. Know what are the protectable interests of the company and never bring up anything from someones social media page unless it damages a protectable interest or violates an agreement. The person must have identified themselves on their page as being associated with the company and then engaging in conduct (discussions, posting pictures, etc...) that reflects negatively on the employer's brand.
  4. Know if any company information posted by the employee is available elsewhere in public forum. If so, move along. If not, you have a confidentiality issue that is actionable.

90% of the social media conflicts I've seen can be avoided by good taste, mutual respect, and the keeping of confidences. Just like in the off-line world!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

All About Us

In its July 25/26 Weekend edition, the Wall Street Journal printed a fascinating article, "A Class of Generals" about the West Point class of 1976. From this class have come five Generals currently leading major military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the first time in West Point's 207 year history that one class has produced generals commanding two wars simultaneously.

What is fascinating about this story, for those of you too young to remember, is that the class of 1976 entered West Point in 1972, at the low point for prestige and morale in the U.S. military. This was the period immediately post-Vietnam and in the midst of Watergate. It was decidedly uncool to be in the military at all, much less pledging your life and career to lead its soldiers.

Yet this one class has produced 33 active or retired generals from its 855 graduates. Not since the class of 1915, which produced Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, who led the U.S. through World War II, has one class had such an impact on military leadership. Asked why they came, most said as part of their families' traditions, a sense of duty, and some had scholarship or other opportunities that made it their best opportunity. Today, after stepping into an organization in which they believed when it needed them most, they are a class of professionals who will go down in history.

Reading this reminded me of a similar group, this from the sports world in my native Kentucky. The 1991-92 University of Kentucky men's team is revered in our state as "The Unforgettables." Due to flagrant recruiting violations under then Head Coach Eddie Sutton, the U of K program was banned from postseason play for two years. The best players left the program and the best recruits went elsewhere. Four seniors, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhus, John Pelphrey (now coach at the University of Arkansas), and Sean Woods stayed with the program. All were native Kentuckians who, because of family traditions stayed together and with the program.

Their reward was a new head coach recruited from the NBA, Rick Pitino, who in turn recruited great underclass players. In the '91-'92 season they went 29 - 7 and lost to eventual national champion Duke in what is often called the greatest college basketball game ever played. All four players' jerseys are retired at UK. Their rise from the bottom of the SEC to national prominence in one year turned around the UK program for a decade.

Which brings me to us. Eighteen months ago there were around 660 of us; now there are around 480. I won't go back through what we endured in the year between April 2008 and 2009; you know that all too well. What I can tell you now that is probably news to you should make you feel good about yourself and your teammates. The staff reductions of 2008 actually happened in six phases of planning and implementation over a 14 month period. During this time every single one of us was discussed at some time or other. The magnitude of the downsizing, and the fact that it came in wave upon wave, necessitated an examination of each and every job and person. Was the job necessary? If so, which person was the right one for the job and who should go?

So, if you're here at Thomas Nelson right now, today, you are good at what you do. You have been vetted and approved, and you're regarded as someone who knows what they're doing. That doesn't give any of us a pass on doing our job everyday, but it should make you pause for a moment to hold your head up. Like the Class of Generals and like The Unforgettables, you are leading and performing at a unique time in our history. You're doing that almost completely because of who you are and what you believe, not because its raining money on Nelson Place.

And, since nothing happens accidentally, you are where you are for a reason. As we near the mid-point in this very difficult Q2 may this be an encouragement to you that you can also pass to anyone around you who needs it.