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Social Media in the Workplace

Social media increasingly play a role in just about all stages of the employment process—and at each stage there are compliance risks.

Many companies, for example, regularly look up job applicants online as part of the hiring process. But according to a 2013 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, many may also use what they find to discriminate. In an online experiment, the researchers tested responses of over 4,000 U.S. employers to a Muslim candidate relative to a Christian candidate, and to a gay candidate relative to a straight candidate. They found that “survey subjects with hiring experience are significantly less likely to say they would interview the Muslim candidate than the Christian candidate.” (However, researchers found no evidence of discrimination against the gay candidate relative to the straight candidate.)

If your company is contemplating asking employees to turn over the passwords for their Facebook or Twitter accounts, exercise extreme caution—and question whether you’ll get the results you want. While access to personal accounts might seem like a good way to protect proprietary information or trade secrets, it could also represent an invasion of employee privacy. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, laws to prevent employers from requesting passwords to personal Internet accounts have been passed in ten states (Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington), and legislation has been introduced or is pending in at least 36 states.

Every company should have a social media policy. An effective policy should be simple, consistent, and tightly aligned with a company’s Code of Conduct; whatever the company code for in-person encounters, and whatever the rules for general good behavior, they apply in the online world as well. Potential penalties for violations, including dismissal, should be made clear.

Consider, for example, the Social Computing Guidelines issued by IBM: “Be thoughtful about how you present yourself in online social networks. The lines between public and private, personal and professional are blurred in online social networks. By virtue of identifying yourself as an IBMer within a social network, you are now connected to your colleagues, managers, and even IBM’s clients. You should ensure that content associated with you is consistent with your work at IBM.”

In the U.S., the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has focused considerable energy on social media issues, with a series of rulings emphasizing that corporate guidelines must not violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by disciplining or firing an employee because the employee was using social media to engage in “protected concerted activity,” which occurs when two or more employees act together to protest or complain about wages, benefits, or other terms and conditions of employment.

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Topics: ECA Risk Forecast Report 2014