Monday, January 20, 2014

The Thin Line Between On Site Workplace Harassment and Social Media

By David Simms, Senior Contributor

There has been an issue arising about harassment in the workplace. Although this type of harassment has always been an issue, it has become more complex due to social media.  There are many cases where employees access their personal social media accounts to harass co-workers while on the clock. This has brought up a debate on where the line should be drawn by employers as they try to maintain an ethical standard and provide protection for employees.  The laws in the United States vary and actually limit  what employers are legally allowed to do.  Numerous states have enacted laws prohibiting employers from accessing employee social media accounts or even requesting that they can.  Typically, employees don’t have a right to privacy in work-related documents or any electronic information or communications within the workplace, but this does not necessarily include social media websites.  Because of this, employers face challenges as privacy laws restrict them from being able to conduct immediate and thorough investigations pertaining to workplace harassment that they might otherwise conduct when social media accounts are not involved. 

Even though laws surrounding social media are constantly in flux, there are a few actions employers can still take in reducing their liability related to social media harassment. Most important, employers need to have a clear, concise, and specific social media policy spelling out that employees must comply if they are suspected in electronic harassment or intimidation while at work and that their personal social media accounts may be accessed to confirm or rule out involvement.  An electronic communications policy should also indicate an employer's right to access any content on its own technology systems, so that if the alleged harassment occurs on the company system, the employer will have the right to access it and use the information to take action. Employers should also address all harassment, whether in-person or electronically, the same way and give clear warnings that a full investigation will occur regardless of the nature of the harassment. People should not be able to hide behind privacy protection at work to carry out personal attacks on others.