Everything Employers Need To Know About Social Media In the Workplace In 2013

I will be conducting a webinar on January 15, 2013 on legal issues of social media in the workplace. The presentation will cover everything a California employer needs to know about social media in the modern workplace of 2013:

  • Discussion on the new law (Labor Code section 960) that prohibits employers from asking applicants and employees for their social media passwords taking effect on January 1, 2013.
  • How to avoid invading employees’ privacy rights when using social media for background checks.
  • Developments on how the NLRB held that some social media policies restrict an employee’s right to “engage in concerted activities.”
  • How to use the Internet to properly conduct a background check for applicant.
  • Discussion on whether your company needs a social media policy.
  • Evaluating whether an employer may be held liable for failing to use social media and the Internet to conduct a background check.
  • Alternatives to social media policies.

The cost is $150 (this is waived for clients). You may register below, or send me an email if you are a client.

This webinar has been preapproved by HRCI for 1 recertification credit hour. 

"The use of this seal is not an endorsement by the HR Certification Institute of the quality of the program. It means that this program has met the HR Certification Institute's criteria to be pre-approved for recertification credit."

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NLRB Issues New Memo On Validity of Social Media Policies

In October 2012 the National Labor Relations Board issued an advice memorandum regarding whether an employer’s social media policy violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). This memorandum is of importance because the NLRB has issued findings recently that employer’s seemingly neutral social media policies violated employees’ rights under the NLRA. Section 7 of the NLRA provides that employees have the right to self-organize, form, join or assist labor organizations, and generally “engage in other concerted activities.” Section 8 of the NLRA makes it unlawful for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.” This prohibits applies to all employers, even if the employees are not unionized.

In the memorandum the NLRB sets forth its two step analysis in determining whether a “work rule” “would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.” First, the NLRB examine whether the rule “is clearly unlawful if it explicitly restricts Section 7 protected activities.” Second, the rule is examined to determine if “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.” While the Board said that a rule “that could conceivably be read to restrict Section 7 activity” would does not automatically violate the NLRA, but if the rule is ambiguous and contains no limiting language or context to clarify that it does not restrict their Section 7 rights would be in violation.

The case at issue in the memorandum involved Cox Communications. The company had a standard social media policy:

Nothing in Cox’s social media policy is designed to interfere with, restrain, or prevent employee communications regarding wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. Cox Employees have the right to engage in or refrain from such activities. . . .

DO NOT make comments or otherwise communicate about customers, coworkers, supervisors, the Company, or Cox vendors or suppliers in a manner that is vulgar, obscene, threatening, intimidating, harassing, libelous, or discriminatory on the basis of age, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, disability, national origin, ethnicity, citizenship, marital status, or any other legally recognized protected basis under federal, state, or local laws, regulations, or ordinances. Those communications are disrespectful and unprofessional and will not be tolerated by the Company. . .

DO respect the laws regarding copyrights, trademarks, rights of publicity and other third-party rights. To minimize the risk of a copyright violation, you should provide references to the source(s) of information you use and accurately cite copyrighted works you identify in your online communications. Do not infringe on Cox logos, brand names, taglines, slogans, or other trademarks.

An employee was fired for violating this policy by posting an offensive and derogatory comment on his Google+ account via his cell phone. The company suspended the employee and conducted a further investigation, which revealed that the employee made numerous other posts “containing lewd language which disparaged customers.” The company terminated the employee.

Applying the analysis above to Cox Communication’s social media policy, the NLRB found that the policy did not violate the NLRA. The Board said that the examples of egregious conduct listed in Cox Communication’s policy established a context that “clearly would not be reasonably understood to restrict Section 7 activity.” Also, the policy’s savings clause that specifically set forth that it was not designed to violate any communications employees had the legal right to make, also supported the finding that it did not violate Section 7.

The NLRB memorandum can be read here (PDF)

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Inside Litigation Over Social Media Accounts - Why Employers Should Have Social Media Policies - Part I

As previously written about on this blog, the case PhoneDog v. Kravtiz is one of the first cases in the country to deal with substantive ownership issues arising out of social media accounts used in the workplace. As companies are moving more and more away from traditional marketing and advertising towards the use of social media, it is critical that companies have an agreement with employees about a few key items regarding social media accounts, such as ownership of the social media accounts.

On the other hand, the rise social media has given individuals the ability to create a brand for themselves and establish a large following for their expertise. These individuals are hired by companies not only for their expertise on the subject matter, but also for the large group of followers they developed via social media. The followers the individuals have through Twitter, Facebook or a blog is a valuable advertising and marketing resource for a company that wishes to gain the follower’s attention. Because of this shift from traditional advertising and PR, employers and employees have to be vigilant in approaching this issue given the potentially large value social media contacts can now have in the marketplace. An employee being hired who agrees to use their social media accounts to promote the company’s business should also clearly set out at least a few issues in a written agreement.

For example, a social media agreement between and employer and employee could address at the following issues:

  • Ownership of the employee’s social media accounts that will be used for business purposes. Clearly spell out who owns the accounts (or license to use the accounts).
  • Ownership and use of the company’s social media accounts. Who retains the right to change the passwords? Who retains the right to edit and approve content? What is the process to approve content prior to publishing?
  • Any restrictive terms of use of the employee’s social media accounts during employment. For example, does the employer have the right to edit and review the content prior to publication?
  • What control, if any, the company will have after the termination of the employment relationship over the employee’s or the company’s social media accounts. Is there a time frame after employment that the employee cannot use his or her own social media accounts for competitive business uses? Employers need to be careful here, however, as limiting an employee’s use of their social media accounts may be tantamount to a prohibited non-competition agreement or in violation of other state laws. I expect that this will be another hot area of the law that will be addressed by the courts within the next few years.
  • It may also be useful to set a monetary value on the social media accounts. This is probably easier to negotiate among the parties prior to any dispute over the value should litigation arise later.

My next article, Part II of this series, will address what claims employers and employees would likely use during litigation over social media accounts.

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Does the Company or the Employee Own a Twitter Account?

Imagine you are an employer and your employee in charge of your social media accounts leaves, keeps the accounts, and begins using the accounts while working for a competitor. Conversely, imagine you are an employee, leave employment to work for a competitor and your former employer sues you for $350,000 because you refuse to stop using your social media accounts. These issues are at play in PhoneDog v. Kravitz. The case illustrates the complicated issues surrounding exactly who owns social media accounts that are used for work. Noah Kravitz worked for PhoneDog as a product reviewer and video blogger. He had a Twitter account “@PhoneDog_Noah” he used as one way to publish product reviews as part of his job at PhoneDog. PhoneDog asserts in the lawsuit that it issues its employees Twitter accounts in the form of “@PhoneDog_[name]”. PhoneDog alleges that all of these Twitter accounts are proprietary, confidential information. Kravitz used the account while he was employed at PhoneDog, and garnered 17,000 Twitter followers.

When Kravitz left employment with PhoneDog to join a competitor, PhoneDog asked him to stop using the Twitter account. It is alleged in the lawsuit that Kravitz refused, changed the Twitter account handle to “@noahkravitz” and then continued to use the account and maintain the Twitter followers.

In response, PhoneDog filed a lawsuit against Kravitz for (1) misappropriation of trade secrets; (2) intentional interference with prospective economic advantage; (3) negligent interference with prospective economic advantage; and (4) conversion. Currently, the Court has ruled that PhoneDog’s lawsuit may proceed at this point, but Kravitz has raised some valid points that may be a defense, but still need to be developed further in litigation. 

Kravitz maintains that there cannot be a claim against him for misappropriation of trade secrets because the Twitter account followers are not a secret, as anyone on Twitter can see who the followers are. Kravitz also argues that the password to the Twitter account is not a trade secret, as PhoneDog does not derive any economic benefit from the password itself – it simply allows the user to see public information. Kravitz was also the person who created the password, not PhoneDog, so there is no PhoneDog secret at issue here. Most interestingly, Kravitz argues that PhoneDog does not have a claim against him for misappropriating the account because the Twitter account is not owed by PhoneDog. Twitter’s Terms of Service specifies that all accounts are the exclusive property of Twitter, that Twitter has the right to “reclaim usernames without liability” to the users, and Twitter retains the right to terminate accounts.

The employer is not without its share of arguments as well. While Kravitz raises some interesting technical issues about who owns the Twitter account, PhoneDog would have a strong argument that the license issued by Twitter is really the property at issue. PhoneDog could argue that because the license granted by Twitter to Kravitz was done during Kravitz’ employment and he set up the account at the request of PhoneDog, this license actually belongs to PhoneDog. Some not so well known California Labor Code provisions strongly support PhoneDog’s argument.  For example, Labor Code section 2860, states:

Everything which an employee acquires by virtue of his employment, except the compensation which is due to him from his employer, belongs to the employer, whether acquired lawfully or unlawfully, or during or after the expiration of the term of his employment.

Furthermore, Labor Code section 2863 provides:

An employee who has any business to transact on his own account, similar to that entrusted to him by his employer, shall always give the preference to the business of the employer.

This fascinating case raises many interesting issues, and will not be the last time I blog about the issues it raises.  It is a good reminder that the creation and maintenance of social media accounts is a critical factor in the employment context today and needs to be addressed from both the employer's and employee's perspectives.

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Everyone Needs To Calm Down About Social Media And The Law

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.

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Is The Jury Still Out On Social Media Background Checks?

Mat Honan at Gizmodo wrote recently about a new company that helps employers search applicant’s “internet background” to assist in the hiring process. As Mat rightly points out, much of the concern over this “new technology” is overblown, and as he puts it, "[e]mployers would have to be stupid not to Google job candidates."  As I have pointed out before, much of the unduly concern is that lawyers don’t understand the technology, and therefore if they don’t understand it, their client’s use of the technology can only lead to bad things.

I think Guy Kawasaki had a great perspective on this issue when I recently interviewed him. He said he would be worried about a job applicant who did not have a Facebook page: what is wrong with this person? Is he anti-social? Is he not with the times or just simply does not understand simple technology? As Mat points out as well, with some common sense a job applicant can easily manage the results of an online search by being careful about which information he or she provides to the employer. For example, an internet search for the job applicant’s private email address might turn up more personal information than if the applicant has a separate email they only use for work purposes and lists on their c.v.

From the employer’s perspective I don’t think the analysis changes much for searching employees background on the Internet:

Generally, under Federal law, employers may utilize social networking sites to conduct background checks on employees if:

  1. The employer and/or its agents conduct the background check themselves;
  2. The site is readily accessible to the public;
  3. The employer does not need to create a false alias to access the site;
  4. The employer does not have to provide any false information to gain access to the site; and
  5. The employer does not use the information learned from the site in a discriminatory manner or otherwise prohibited by law.
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UFC's Social Networking Policy - Something All Employers Should Consider

I like the UFC’s approach to social media – reward its fighters with bonuses (totaling $240,000 per year) for having the most twitter followers and the most creative tweets. Is this a model a lot of employers could use in their workplace? Absolutely. Unless you find yourself with the few who are still wondering what Twitter is, it is obvious that social networking is here to stay and companies need to figure out a way to make it a productive part of their business. The model also gives the right message to employees – that they are responsible individuals who will use social media appropriately to help the company build its brand. This is a much better approach than telling employees about they cannot do with social media, which is what most companies’ policies do. By warning employees about all of the negative implications for them in using social media, it stifles potential branding opportunities that could exist for the company. And it is already stating the obvious.

If I were running a company, I would want my employees actively using their personal social media accounts to promote specials and new products. It is great that there are tools now available to track the success rate and to give incentives to employees who generate the most buzz. I can already hear other lawyers out there grumbling that this is a bad way to go, and that the company could find itself facing a lot of liability for what employees say on social networks. Every time an employee answers the phone they could create liability for a company, but companies still trust their employees to talk with vendors and customers. The game has changed, time to start communicating with customers where they are listening, and don’t let your policies hinder this.

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