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Facebook guidelines for employers and employees

Some Facebook posts by workers criticizing their employers are "protected concerted activity," according to the National Labor Relations Board, which also found some company social-media guidelines overly broad. Is Facebook safe for workers?

Imagine you referred to your supervisor as a "scumbag" in a Facebook post read by your coworkers. You might expect to be looking for a new job very soon thereafter, especially if your employer has a policy that prohibits making disparaging remarks about the company or posting anything about the organization or its managers without permission.

In a case involving Facebook posts by workers for an ambulance service, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that the employee's name-calling was "protected activity" because it occurred away from the workplace and on non-work time.

The employer had refused to allow the worker's union representative to participate in the employee's response to a customer complaint against her. The NLRB found the company's dismissal of the employee illegal and the "scumbag" comment part of a protected discussion about a legitimate work-related matter.

Further, the NLRB concluded that the ambulance service's "Internet and blogging policy" was overly broad; the policy's references to "offensive conduct" and "rude or discourteous behavior" were illegal, according to the agency's decision.

The outcomes of this case and 13 other investigations by the NLRB involving social media are discussed in a PDF that's available for download from the board's site.

Crafting an effective social-media policy means more meetings

Most recent court cases involving employees fired for their Facebook use have been decided in favor of the dismissed worker. Even when the firing stands the court may find some of the employee's work-related Facebook activity protected. For example, a BMW salesman was fired for posting a complaint about the lousy hot dogs his employer served to customers, and for publishing on his Facebook account a photo of a workplace mishap.

As Debra Cassens Weiss describes on the ABA Journal site, the NLRB determined that the "hot dog" critique was protected because it related to the image the dealership was presenting to the public, and sales commissions depended on promoting a positive image.

The salesman was obviously a prolific Facebook user: another of his posts included a photo of one of his employer's Land Rovers that a 13-year-old test driver had parked in a nearby pond (another salesman had given the kid permission to take the car for a spin). That's the post that cost the salesman his job. (If you ask me, that sounds like a fun place to work, bad hot dogs notwithstanding.)

Organizations don't have the luxury of waiting for questions relating to social-media use by employees to be decided. They need a use policy that their employees understand and apply. There's no shortage of templates for social-media policies. Chris Boudreaux has collected social-media guidelines from dozens of organizations.

How can you be sure your social-media policy will protect you and your employees equally? The BLR Human Resource Network offers a 10-point guide for devising a policy for employee use of social media, one of which explains that some negative comments by workers are protected speech in any medium.

A great resource for keeping up with legal issues surrounding social media is Julie Gottlieb's Social Media Law News. Gottlieb's blog examines recent decisions by the NLRB and other courts relating to workplace use of social media.

Don't let a Facebook post get you in trouble with the boss

I'm sure the hours people spend to create, implement, and manage an organization's social-media policy is time well spent, but nearly all the resulting policies will have a pronounced management slant. Here are some common-sense guidelines for the rank and file.

Expend all internal avenues first. Don't take your problem outside the walls unless you truly have no other choice. Even if your Facebook posts are available only to your friends, anything you upload to the service can easily acquire a life of its own. It's a lot easier to keep the genie in the bottle than to get it back in.

If you have to be negative, look for a positive spin. A friend of mine had a departing manager pull a fast one on her, which almost denied her a chance at a promotion. Just days before the position was to be filled, she finally heard about the opening from a coworker's Facebook post asking why she hadn't applied for the job. She and her coworkers guessed at what might have happened but showed restraint by carefully refraining from making accusations online. (She gave me the sordid details in a subsequent telephone call.)

Facebook is so immediate there's not much room for second thoughts. Any negative impression you share with your Facebook friends can resonate long after you click the Post button. Deleting a post is as easy as clicking the icon in the top-right corner and choosing Remove Post. The Facebook Help Center explains how to delete entries from the Timeline. Unfortunately, it may not take long for the damage to be done.

Not everybody will get the joke. As far as I can tell, the people who like to send lists of the funniest fill-in-the-blank on the Internet and the people who like to receive such comical compendia have found each other. Either that or my spam filter is more effective than I imagined.

As the BMW salesman found out, what you think is funny and what your boss thinks is funny are often two very different things. And guess whose opinion matters most when it comes to job security? Yes, most workplaces are boring. No, you can't be expected to check your sense of humor at the door when you arrive at work. But you can never be sure no one will be offended--rightly or wrongly--by one of your on-the-job witticisms. Play it safe by assuming your audience includes not just your grandmother, but the grandmothers of everyone in the room.

Separate your work-related Facebook posts. The safest course is not to friend any coworkers, but this is not always practical. Also, your employer may monitor all of your Internet use, including Facebook. Many companies regularly scan the Facebook accounts of employees in addition to the social-media searches that have become a routine part of the hiring process.

Facebook's lists make it easy to limit the information you share with coworkers, clients, and other work-related contacts. The Facebook Help Center describes how to create and use lists.

Especially when the subject is work, keep it clean. I admit to showing my age by objecting to posts that include cuss words. I've been known to express myself on occasion using certain Anglo-Saxon derivations not suitable for all ages. But Facebook and other social media are the Internet version of the town square. It's always a good idea to watch your language in public.

OK, I have officially become a grumpy old man, but now that Andy Rooney has retired, there's an opening.