Social media sites are creating issues in the workplace

The rise of social media – including blogs, Facebook and Twitter – has opened up a whole world of communication to people. But it’s also opened up a lot of potential confusion and headaches in the workplace. That’s because, with a few strokes on a keyboard, an employee can now do things – such as insult the boss or make an inappropriate sexual comment to a co-worker – that used to happen mainly at the office holiday bash or an after-work gathering at the corner pub.

And as bad as such behavior may have been in the traditional context, it’s even more damaging on the Internet, where it’s documented for the whole world to see, and where the evidence can never be completely deleted. Social media also allow employees to widely distribute sensitive information or trade secrets, and post incriminating data and photographs.

Misuse of social media can easily result in economic harm to a company or a lawsuit for sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. As a result, many employers are creating social media policies to go along with their general Internet and e-mail policies, to try to head off problems and make it easier to deal with them if they occur.

A social media policy doesn’t have to be long and detailed. But many employers find it useful to remind workers not to do things through social media that they’re not supposed to do in the office. This could include harassment of colleagues and disclosure of confidential information.

Many policies also remind employees that everything they put on a social media site is considered public – because even if a person uses the security settings on Facebook to make information accessible only to “friends” or members of a particular group or network, those people might pass it along to others.

Reminders can be a good idea because the casual nature of a Facebook status update or a wall post, combined with the ease of the technology, can cause people to let down their guard.

Employees need to be aware that being careless with social media can not only hurt their employer, but can hurt them as well.

Casual comments and photos posted on social media sites can give an employer grounds to take disciplinary action against a worker. They can also sabotage a lawsuit or a potential lawsuit against a business, by casting the employee in an unfavorable light or undermining claims of having suffered unfairly as a result of the employer’s actions.

Because social media are so new, the exact legal rules are still unclear. It’s not completely certain how much an employer can restrict an employee’s off-duty use of these technologies, or use them themselves to gather information about workers.

For instance, take the case of a woman in Connecticut who lost her job for mocking her company and her boss on Facebook. The company claimed she violated a social media policy that barred employees from making disparaging comments when discussing the company, managers and co-workers.

In this case, though, the woman was a union member and some of her comments were about wages and working conditions. And now the company is facing a complaint by the National Labor Relations Board, which claims the company’s policy violated workers’ right to organize.

This is a good example of why both employers and employees might want to talk to an attorney about their rights, obligations and risks in using social media.