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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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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Interview With Guy Kawasaki on Enchantment

I recently had the opportunity to interview Guy Kawasaki about his New York Times best selling book Enchantment.  I like to think of the interview as an extra chapter to Enchantment specifically for business owners and human resource managers about how to effectively manage employees.  We spoke about the following topics:

  • HR departments should be evangelists, not cops. 
  • HR needs to embrace social media.  A company should even be suspicious of an employee who does not have a Facebook page. 
  • How to recruit and retain great employees.  Hint: It is not about the money.

You can listen to the interview here, or through iTunes at the California Employment Law Podcast

My review of Enchantment can be read here

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Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki

Apple, Virgin America, 1965 Ford Mustang, and Mike Rowe. These are examples of Guy Kawasaki’s idea of Enchantment. In his new book he sets out to help readers understand what enchantment is in order to strive to be enchanting. Some have called it an update of How To Win Friends And Influence People for 2011.

Here are the ideas that caused me to dog ear the pages they were on and stood out for me:

  • To be likable, you need to find shared passions with others. To do this you need to do your homework, but it is easier today than ever to do so thanks to Google. Long gone are the days of reviewing back issues of newspapers to find out about people.
  • On launching a successful venture: “Perhaps [most presentations achieve] antienchantment, because people leave less intrigued than when they knew only rumors. Enchanting launches are more than press releases, data dumps, one-sided assertions, and boring sales pitches. They captivate people’s interest and imagination by telling a compelling story.”
  • Tell personal stories when conveying ideas. They do not need to be “epic” stories.
  • Marketing is turned upside down post-Internet - people depend on opinions of their friends and casual acquaintances more than “experts.”
  • Provide social proof. If everyone else sees other people doing it, then it must be ok.
  • Find something you agree with an opponent with before entering into negotiations. Small talk can often establish items in common, which will help lead to a successful resolution.
  • Embrace technology - especially social media.
  • Tell recruits for a company that you want them, and repeat often - even when they are employees.
  • Learn how to resist enchantment so that you are not enchanted by someone who does not have your best interest in mind.

It is also important to note about what is missing from the book: a chapter on price. As Guy puts it, “It is not about the money.” The book is a good reminder for business owners, human resource managers, and employees alike about what it takes to be successful today. Guy explains in more detail about what it takes to be a successful HR manager or have a successful HR department in my interview with him (or click here to listen on iTunes).

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