New laws limit employers’ monitoring of social networking

The rise of social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, along with the rapid growth of other types of online discussion forums, have made it easier for disgruntled workers to destroy a company’s reputation quickly.

It’s natural for business owners to want to limit the negative impact of such technology. However, an overly restrictive social-networking policy that infringes on workers’ rights to privacy and to communicate among themselves can land an employer in legal trouble.

For instance, a security services company recently created a social networking policy that required employees to get permission from the company’s legal department before commenting on work-related legal matters online. But an administrative judge with the National Labor Relations Board found this to be an unfair labor practice.

The judge said the policy violated workers’ right to bargain collectively. The specific issue involved certain female employees in Arizona who had apparently used social networking tools to discuss alleged sexual harassment in the workplace and how to proceed against the company.

Because the policy could thwart protected discussions, it was illegal, the judge said.

Recently, in response to the growth of company social-networking policies all over the country, the Board issued a report warning employers about the common pitfalls in such policies.

The Board cautioned businesses against putting overly broad restrictions on communicating confidential information, as well as prohibiting employees from “friending” co-workers.

Meanwhile, a number of states are starting to enact laws to protect workers’ social networking rights.

The Maryland legislature, for example, recently passed a bill banning employers from asking employees or prospective hires for passwords to their private social media accounts in almost all situations. California, Michigan and Illinois are currently considering similar laws.

The new law means that Maryland workers can tweet, update their Facebook status, or post information on LinkedIn without necessarily worrying about their bosses seeing it.

Ironically, though, the law could also help employers. The reason is that if workers are using social media for an improper purpose – such as harassing someone – an employer presumably couldn’t be held liable for not finding out about it and putting a stop to it.