The Place for Social Media In the Workplace

Social media have transformed corporate communication practices: Tools such as Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to speak directly to and solicit responses from the public quickly and affordably.

But the original intention of these media were to connect friends, not customers or employees; for businesses, accustomed to managing all aspects of communications (and muting dissent), social media can be an awkward fit.

The most popular use of online tools by companies is to recruit and screen potential employees. A 2011 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 56% of companies use social media to find candidates, up from 34% in 2008. In addition, in 2011 more than 25% of employers went online to check applicants’ profiles on social-media platforms. In doing so, however, they can become aware of personal details such as a candidate’s race, gender or sexual orientation — potentially violating anti-discrimination laws.

For disseminating internal corporate communications, social media has been slower to catch on. According to 2011 research from the International Association of Business Communicators, only 16% of companies used social media frequently to engage employees and foster productivity, while 23% do so occasionally, 28% rarely and 33% never. Part of the issue is the desire of many firms to control corporate communications: Only 25% of employees surveyed had full access to such communications and were encouraged to participate.

Employees naturally use social media for personal reasons — and sometimes they include comments related to work. In January 2013, the U.K. electronics retailer HMV laid off hundreds of staff members — including the company’s online marketing and social media planner, who live-tweeted her and the other employees’ dismissals.

The same month, a waitress at an Applebee’s restaurant posted a photo of a bill on which the customer wrote, “I give God 10%, why do you get 18%?” While the restaurant employee stated that her post was lighthearted and that no harm was intended, she was fired. In an article on the incident, the Harvard Business Review said it “gave everyone from labor organizers to social media evangelists something to fret about.”

Such events sometimes reach the courts. In October 2010, an unfavorable tweet from an employee of the community group Hispanics United of Buffalo prompted support from her coworkers — and resulted in their termination for violating the company’s internal harassment policy. A National Labor Relations Board ruling stated that since the employers were collectively discussing work issues, their discussion on social media was protected by laws pertaining to labor organizing.

The NLRB guidelines indicate that, among other things, “rants” and the use of company logos on social media are not protected. Employers need to be mindful that a “general prohibition of the use of colorful language, distasteful critiques and unseemly remarks in social media (otherwise known as ‘courtesy clauses’) may be construed to restrict employees’ rights to publicly criticize their employer.” See this article for more on this subject.

Many legal issues around social media ownership and use in a business setting remain undefined, such as ownership of social media assets such as handles, walls and contacts when an employee leaves. The Delaware Employment Law Blog profiles several ongoing cases relating to social media that can be useful for journalists writing about social media and workplace issues.