NLRB: Don’t Go Overboard On Social Media Policy

Establishing a policy about the use of social media in the workplace, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ is a complicated but necessary task for any employer.

Many companies are using social media in the workplace to their advantage. Sites like LinkedIn are invaluable tools for recruitment, lead development, and sales. Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, and Google+ are powerful marketing tools. Yammer and are building employee engagement.

But social media doesn’t come without its problems. While the rewards are great, the path is littered with landmines.

Employers need to be concerned about employees using social media in the workplace for personal and other non-productive reasons. Some employers consider social media to be a complete waste of time and resources, an invitation for confidentiality leaks, and a recipe for PR disaster. This reasoning has led to bans on social media in the workplace. These bans are intended to keep employees focused and decrease the improper use of a company's technology resources. But while bans may lessen employee abuse and wasted bandwidth, a social media blockade has its drawbacks. The effect on morale, especially in a young workforce is profound.  For employees working long hours, Facebook and Twitter are the only way for them to stay in touch with friends and relatives. Psychologists have shown that the ability to use social media in the workplace is a valuable stress reduction tool that can improve employee performance.

There are also costs associated with enforcing a ban on using social media in the workplace. Having managers peering over employees’ shoulders is inefficient and non-productive – a solution that might be more wasteful and costly than the employees’ use of social media itself. There are software programs designed to block access to social media sites and track employee behavior, but these need to be purchased, installed, and maintained. But these costs might be a drop in the bucket relative to the effect on employee morale and engagement. 

Nor are these safeguards foolproof. Many of these programs can be circumvented. And without confiscating every employee’s mobile devices, locking down social media is like locking the doors but leaving the windows open. Companies should focus on how employees can use social media for the good of the company, not build a bureaucracy around controlling it. Several recent court and labor board decisions may be forcing employers’ hands too.

In one case, an employee was fired for posting complaints about her employer and manager on Facebook. In considering the case, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that employers cannot ban workers from using social media in the workplace to discuss working conditions, wages, and hours with coworkers and others.

However, the National Labor Relations Board does not protect all employees who are disciplined or terminated for comments made online. The NLRB protects communications made when they concern group action by employees, action on behalf of another employee, or complaints to coworkers about the employer. As an example, a caregiver brought a complaint to the NLRB after she was fired for making online comments that demeaned and insulted the mentally ill patients she was supposed to be caring for. The NLRB ruled that this was not protected.

Employers also need to be concerned about managers using social media in the workplace when hiring. Looking at a candidates Facebook profile can reveal information about his or her sex, age, ethnicity, family situation, religion health, and politics. Even if a decision is not based on this information, knowing it can expose the employer to allegations of discrimination.

The myriad of issues surrounding the use of social media in the workplace mandate that responsible employers have a well thought-out policy that makes the most out of social media, without exposing the company to unnecessary risks.


Ira S Wolfe