By Kathleen Jennings (email@example.com)
Harriet the Human Resources Manager is sitting at her desk at Acme Corporation on Monday morning enjoying a cup of coffee when the email arrives from Will E. Kyote. Harriet is aware that Will is a frequent purchaser of Acme’s products. Harriet figures his latest order was forwarded to her by mistake.
This email, however, is not an order. In it, Will states as follows: “I have attached a screenshot of a comment by your employee, Rhoda Runner, on a social media page of a local news station. I clicked on her picture, and the link showed her to be a supervisor at your company. I am disgusted and I will no longer do business with Acme.”
The screenshot shows a news story about immigration, and shows several comments, including one by Rhoda that states: “I am so tired of hearing the Mexicans speak Spanish at work all day. If they can’t speak English, they need to go back to where they came from!” Will has also sent a screenshot of Rhoda’s Facebook page which shows that she identifies herself as a supervisor at Acme.
To make Harriet’s morning worse, she sees that Acme’s President was copied on the email. Sure enough, the President calls Harriet and tells her, “We cannot allow our employees to represent our company with these kinds of statements. It is disrespectful to our employees. It is disrespectful to our customers. We have lost one customer already. Make sure it does not happen again.”
Harriet calls Rhoda to her office. Rhoda also invites Rhoda’s supervisor to the meeting as a witness. Harriet asks Rhoda if she posted the statement on a social media page. Rhoda admits that she did, adding, “I just got caught up in things. I probably should not have said it.” Harriett asks Rhoda if the difference in language prevents the Spanish-speaking workers from doing their jobs. Rhoda admits that it does not because there are several bilingual line leaders and supervisors available to translate.
Harriet shows Rhoda Acme’s Social Media policy, as well as a copy of Rhoda’s signed acknowledgement of receipt of the policy. “I’m sorry, Rhoda, but your statement is a clear violation of this policy. As a supervisor, you represent the company. Acme does not tolerate these kinds of statements. You are suspended without pay for 1 week, you are being demoted to a non-supervisory position and your pay will be reduced accordingly, and you will be required to attend diversity training. Any further incidents of this type will result in your immediate termination.”
Rhoda is stunned. “How can you do this; I didn’t say this at work?! I have a right to express my opinions on social media.”
Harriet responds: “Rhoda, the Company’s Social Media Policy clearly states that
All of Company’s policies, as well as the terms of any agreement between you and Company, apply to communications (“posts”) made on social media. This includes for example, policies regarding discrimination, sexual harassment, non-violence, confidentiality, use of Company’s electronic systems and use of company time, as well as contractual provisions regarding disclosure of confidential information and restricting competitive activities. Sexual harassment, confidential information and other terms defined by other policies and agreements between you and Company have the same meaning as in those policies and agreements. ”
“Rhoda, while you may have the ability to express your opinion publicly, when those opinions violate our discrimination or harassment policies, we have to take action. We do not tolerate those kinds of statements by any employee, and especially not by a supervisor. That kind of statement also can undermine your effectiveness as a supervisor of a diverse workforce.”
Thereafter, Rhoda sent an email to all company employees reminding them of Acme’s Social Media Policy as well as its EEO Policy and its Policy Against Harassment. She also sent an email to Will thanking him for his email and assuring him that Rhoda’s words did not reflect the views of Acme. Will responded shortly thereafter, thanking her for a prompt response to his concern.
The moral of the story: Can a private company like Acme really take action against an employee for making a statement on social media? Yes—a private company has a right—and a duty– to manage how its employees represent themselves and communicate on social media. The dissemination of a written social media policy puts employees on notice of the company’s expectations. A private employer can take action against an employee for making statements on social media that are contrary to the Company’s policies and values. The statements of supervisors and/or managers can be imputed to the Company and can be used against the Company in legal proceedings, so it is especially important for those persons to understand the parameters of the Company’s social media policy and the consequences of speech the Company deems improper or harmful.
If your company needs a Social Media policy, or wishes to update an existing policy, please contact one of the attorneys at Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine, P.C. for assistance.
Kathleen Jennings, Principal is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in sexual harassment and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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