You might be the boss, but think twice before telling your employees how to behave on social-media sites, experts warn. Perhaps you’d prefer that your managers not friend their subordinates. Or perhaps you want to make sure that confidential information about your company remains confidential. And maybe you don’t want anyone on staff complaining about their jobs online. Well, you probably can’t do anything about it.
On May 30, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a report identifying many common clauses in social-media policies that it says violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), particularly Section 7, which protects employees’ rights to engage in “concerted activity,” like discussing wages and working conditions.
The NLRB’s report is just that—a report—and there will likely be litigation to determine exactly what can and can’t be said in these policies. But unfortunately right now, there’s no easy way for employers to know what’s legally acceptable and what’s not.
“Employers need to keep in mind that there are no bright-line rules when it comes to the enforcement of social-media policies,” says Jennifer Papas, an attorney at Jackson Lewis LLP in White Plains.
One thing is clear: As employee communication and interaction regularly extends beyond face-to-face conversations to sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, so must the protection of the NLRB. “There is a place for Section Seven in cyberspace,” Papas insists.
Despite the scrutiny of the NLRB, social media is an opportunity, not a liability, according to Andrea Goldberg, PhD, president of Digital Culture Consulting, LLC. “You need to have a policy and have it vetted by your legal team,” she says. But rather than focus on restricting employees’ use of social media, capitalize on it. “Empower and train your employees who are active on social media to be brand ambassadors,” Goldberg suggests. “Instead of having ten people posting on your behalf, you can have four hundred. Use the power of the network. Incentivize employees to participate.”
Bridget Gibbons, CEO of Gibbons Digital Consultants, agrees that fear shouldn’t be the focus. Employers should worry less about what’s being said online by employees and instead concentrate on using that information as a tool for improvement. “If employees are griping on social media, it’s better to know about it and address it than to not be aware of those conversations.”
When it comes to developing policies about employees’ use of personal social-media sites in relation to their job, it looks like it’s actually the employer who needs a user’s manual. After all, Goldberg says, “hiding your head in the sand isn’t going to make social media go away.”
For the time being, heed the words of Papas: “A good social-media policy reminds employees to think before they post. A good employer remembers to think before he or she acts.”