I would love to be able to tell my clients that the Internet and social media has created a very complex set of legal issues that requires them to hire me in order to help develop all new handbook policies, change the way they conduct background checks on applicants, and monitor their employees. However, unfortunately, this is not the case. Employers and employees need to calm down a bit. I cringe when I hear employment lawyers (and Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer recent comments about employers asking to have employee’s Facebook passwords) advising people to refrain from using the Internet to do background checks on applicants because it may reveal that they are in a protected category, and then this could (possibly) be grounds for a discrimination case. Are these same lawyers advising their clients not to conduct interviews because during a face to face interview the employer will learn the same information? And just because the employer knows that an applicant or employee is in a protect class does not mean that discrimination occurred if it takes an adverse employment action against the applicant or employee. Sure, all employers are subject to frivolous legal actions. But, as I tell my clients, there are only two things my clients and I can control: (1) the advice I give them about how to act according to the law, and (2) whether my clients listen to my advice and act accordingly. The one thing we cannot control, no matter how hard we wish we could, is being able to stop people from filing a baseless lawsuit.
We’ve had the Internet since the 1970’s, and it became mainstream in the 1990’s. I would argue that most people (at least in the U.S.) have had experience on the Internet for at least a decade now. There has not been a lot of case law that has changed the way employment lawyers advise their clients on new human resources policies given the advent of the Internet and social media.
Have the courts simply not caught up with these "new" developments?
As typical lawyers always suggests at this point - courts are slow to deal with emerging technology issues, but I don’t think that is a play here. Courts are slow, but we’ve been actively using the Internet for a decade now. They are not that slow, and I think rather that the rules that were already in place and governed employer’s and employee’s activities were and still are sufficient in addressing the vast majority of the employment issues involving the Internet and social media. Sure, on the fringes there are a few technical items that may be the exception to this, but for the vast majority of employers the Internet and social media does not change much about how HR should conduct itself. The basic analysis regarding monitoring and employee’s off work conduct and right to privacy – the issues usually at play in these types of cases – is the same if the conduct at issue was done off the Internet. I would even argue that privacy cases usually are easier when it involves a posting on the Internet, as no one has any reasonable expectation of privacy in such a public disclosure.
What about social media policies?
That usually leads to the next question, “What about social media policies?” Again, most employers probably don’t need a specific social media policy. And a basic policy (if you really think a social media policy is necessary) that the employer may terminate or discipline an employee for anything they do on the Internet if the employer could terminate or discipline the employee if the conduct at issue did not occur on the Internet would normally be sufficient.
Employers, lawyers, and employees need to take a step back and realize that even though we have these great new technological advances, the law developed before this technology does a pretty good job at resolving these issues in the employment context.