Everyone Can Hear You Bitch on the Internet, or Why Communication Policies Need a Refresh


I wrote last week about an article on Workforce.com cautioning human resources professionals that they could open themselves up to employment discrimination lawsuits by checking out job candidates on social networking sites like Facebook.


Echoing this item, I found an out-law.com article warning companies that employee posts on such sites, even when done during non-work hours, could create ugly publicity problems -- or worse, potential lawsuits -- for employers. Says employment law specialist Ben Doherty:

... anyone can be a publisher now, at work or at home, and office policies sometimes overlook that. They're too focused on Web 1.0 sites.

An example of the kind of posts that can lead to trouble: More than a dozen UK police officers were issued written warnings after they posted photos and anecdotes about collisions in their work vehicles on Facebook. The officers were part of a larger Facebook group called "Look I've had a Polcol."(Polcol is slang for police collision, according to the article.) Not surprisingly, the group apparently no longer exists.


out-law.com reproduces a portion of Metropolitan Police policy that says staff:

must not use MPS systems to author, transmit or store documents such as electronic mail (e-mail) messages or attachments ... containing racist, homophobic, sexist, defamatory, offensive, illegal or otherwise inappropriate material.

Doherty encourages companies to update their policies to inform employees that they will be subject to disciplinary action if non-work activity adversely affects the employer's reputation. Don't forget to convey updates to staff so that any resulting disciplinary action is "far easier, less risky and less controversial," Doherty tells outlaw-com. Bonus: The article links to a free, downloadable policy that some companies may want to adopt.


Even anonymous Internet activity -- and really Virginia, there is no such thing -- can get folks into trouble, as I wrote back in March, citing the case of Rick Frenkel, a Cisco employee being sued for defamation after two Texas attorneys alleged he harmed their reputations by mentioning them in anonymous posts on the Patent Troll Tracker blog. The attorneys sued not only Frankel, but Cisco, because Frankel wrote that his supervisor at Cisco knew about his posts.


It's a can of exceptionally wriggly worms, to be sure, but one that many companies blithely choose to ignore. While Dell and IBM require employees to reveal their professional affiliations when blogging about topics related to company business, a number of other companies -- including Google, Yahoo and Sun Microsystems -- hadn't yet addressed this issue in their policies at the time I wrote my post.