It’s generally a good practice to set standards of online employee conduct to prevent the social media activity of employees from disrupting the workplace or tarnishing your organization’s reputation. But the mere fact that an employee comments on controversial subjects on social media doesn’t necessarily justify disciplinary action. That’s especially true in the case of a public employer. Disciplining a government employee for posting social media messages about a topic of public concern could violate the First Amendment, as illustrated by a recent Ohio decision. Hamm v. Williams, Case No. 1:15CV273 (N.D. Ohio, Sept. 29, 2016).
Hamm centered around the controversy over the fatal police shooting of two unarmed African-Americans following a high-speed car chase. The incident — sometimes known as the “137 shots” in reference to the number of bullets that were fired at the couple — was highly publicized and the target of protests by the Black Lives Matter movement. Seven Cleveland police officers were indicted as a result. While off-duty, a Cleveland police officer (Hamm) used his home computer to post Facebook comments criticizing the indictments and showing support for his colleagues. Approximately one week later, Hamm wrote on Facebook that an unidentified individual found his original comments offensive and had reported the first post to his supervisors.
After conducting an investigation, the supervisors determined that Hamm had breached department rules against using social media to discuss a criminal investigation involving the department or posting material that would “tend to diminish” public esteem for the department. The department suspended Hamm for 10 days. Hamm sued the city for retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment right to free expression.
Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, government employees have a First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. However, an employee’s constitutionally protected right to free expression must be balanced against a public employer’s interest in efficient delivery of public services.
The court determined that Hamm was speaking as a private citizen, as he had posted the Facebook comments while he was off-duty using his home computer. The subject of his comments – a highly publicized police shooting and the aftermath – was a matter of “political, social or other concern to the community” and not just a “quintessential employee beef.”
The city argued that a police department, as a paramilitary organization charged with maintaining public safety and order, had a greater interest in regulating the speech of its employees than an ordinary public employer. The city contended that it was justified in ensuring that officers are not publicly criticizing an investigation or placing a stigma on the criminal justice system or internal police operations.
The court rejected the city’s arguments because it found no evidence that Hamm’s posts actually resulted in work stoppages or that any officers declined to fulfill his or her duties because of Hamm’s posts. The court therefore allowed Hamm to proceed to trial on his First Amendment retaliation claim.
Hamm is a good reminder that discipline should not be a knee-jerk reaction to controversial social media posts of an employee. Conduct an investigation and collect evidence of the actual or potential disruptive impact of the comments before taking disciplinary action. If you’re a public employer, the First Amendment adds an extra layer of protection for employees. Consult experienced counsel to help you analyze the impact of constitutional protections for online employee speech.
Six years ago, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) became one of the first governmental agencies to regulate social media use in the workplace. In 2010 and 2011, the NLRB issued a series of guidance memos and decisions sketching the contours of acceptable limitations on social media conduct of employees. Largely aimed at protecting the right of employees to act together to improve their working conditions and terms of employment – what Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) calls “protected concerted activity” – the NLRB’s social media guidelines can be downright frustrating for employers. Conduct that might seem proper to ban, like making defamatory comments about management personnel or discussing confidential company information online, could be protected under Section 7, according to the NLRB.
Little has changed after six years. Three recent cases show that the NLRB is still as confounding as ever when it comes to regulating social media work rules.
- In Chipotle Services LLC d/b/a Chipotle Mexican Grill, Case No. 04-CA-147314 (Aug. 18, 2016) the NLRA struck down parts of Chipotle’s “Social Media Code of Conduct” that prohibited employees from posting “incomplete, confidential or inaccurate information” and making “disparaging, false, or misleading statements” about Chipotle, other employees, suppliers, customers, competitors, or investors. Chipotle fired an employee for violating this rule by posting tweets that criticized Chipotle’s hourly wage. The NLRA concluded that the rule was unlawful because it could reasonably chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.
- In G4S Secure Solutions (USA) Inc., 364 NLRB No. 92 (Aug. 26, 2016), the NLRB ruled that a private security company’s policies concerning confidentiality and social media postings violated Section 7 rights of employees. The confidentiality policy prohibited employees from making “public statements about the activities or policies of the company[.]” The NLRB found this rule overbroad because it could be understood to prohibit discussion of rules concerning employee conduct, which is a term and condition of employment. Also unlawful was a social media policy banning social media postings of pictures of employees dressed in their security guard uniforms. The NLRB rejected the company’s argument that the policy protected a legitimate privacy interest.
- In Laborers’ International Union of North America and Mantell, Case No. 03-CB-136940 (NLRB Sept. 7, 2016), the NLRB found that a union violated the Section 7 of the NLRA by disciplining a union member who criticized union leadership for giving a journeyman’s book to a mayoral candidate who had not gone through the union’s 5-year apprenticeship program. The comments were posted on a Facebook page accessible to approximately 4,000 people, some of whom were union members. Even though certain aspects of his comments were false, they did not lose protection because they were not “knowingly and maliciously untrue.”
Does your organization have similar social media rules concerning anti-disparagement, confidentiality, or privacy? If so, it might be time to freshen up your social media policy with the help of experienced counsel.
Digital privacy versus national security. That’s how scores of articles have framed the controversy over Apple Inc.’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI in bypassing the security features of an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the deceased shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Largely overlooked is the fact that Farook’s employer could’ve prevented the whole controversy had it installed common software on the phone.
Syed worked for the County of San Bernardino as a health inspector. The county issued the iPhone in question to Farook to help him do his job. Farook signed an agreement giving the county the right to search the contents of the phone, but the county did not take measures to ensure its could enforce that right. Employers who allow their employees to use mobile devices for work typically install mobile device management (MDM) software on the device. MDM allows the employer to unlock a mobile device phone remotely, wipe the contents of the device, push software updates, and track the device’s location. According to an AP report, the county had a contract with a MDM provider, but it never installed the MDM software on Farook’s phone. The MDM service costs $4 per month per phone.
There are HR and IT lessons to be learned from this incident. One lesson is that employees should be required to grant their employers access to their mobile devices as a condition of using them for work-related purposes. Specifically, management should obtain an employee’s signed written agreement authorizing the company to access the contents of a mobile device that is connected to the company network. The County of San Bernardino did it at least obtain this kind of authorization.
A second lesson is that the right to access an mobile device is useless if you have no practical way of gaining access. This is where technology like MDM software is useful. Installation of MDM controls should be standard operating procedure in any Bring Your Own Device program. MDM software doesn’t have to be expensive either. Popular email server platforms like Microsoft Exchange have MDM controls built in. For more robust functionality, consider investing in specialized MDM solutions.
It shouldn’t take the prospect of a terrorist attack to highlight the importance of taking these lessons seriously.
Anyone with a smartphone has the ability to record sound and video. This can raise privacy concerns as well as create a record of events without others’ knowledge. For these reasons, companies may prohibit employees from making workplace recordings. If your employee handbook contains such a rule, consider giving it a second look because the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently struck down “no recording” rules implemented by Whole Foods.
A three-member panel of the NLRB reviewed two workplace policies: one prohibiting employees from making audio or video recordings of company meetings without prior management approval or the consent of all parties to the conversation, and the second prohibiting employees from recording conversations without prior management approval. The stated purpose of both policies was to foster open and honest communication, a free exchange of ideas, and an atmosphere of trust. Allowing employees to record conversations in secret, the policies explained, would deter employees from holding frank discussions about sensitive and confidential matters in the workplace.
The NLRB saw the “no recording” rules differently. In a NLRB Whole Foods Decision, the NLRB ordered Whole Foods to rescind the rules because they effectively violate employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act to engage in protected concerted activity. A majority of the NLRB panel expressed concern that the rule would prohibit employees from engaging in protected activities such as “recording images of protected picketing, documenting unsafe workplace equipment or hazardous working conditions, documenting and publicizing discussions about terms and conditions of employment, documenting inconsistent application of employer rules, or recording evidence to preserve it for later use in administrative or judicial forums in employment-related actions.” The majority noted that covert recordings were an essential element in vindicating Section 7 rights in many cases. The employer’s interest in encouraging open and frank communications did not override the Section 7 rights of employees.
One member of the NLRB panel dissented, arguing that employees would reasonably interpret the “no recording” rules to protect, not prohibit, Section 7 activity. However, the majority found the blanket prohibition on all recordings troubling. A witness for Whole Foods testified that the rules would apply “regardless of the activity that the employee is engaged in, whether protected concerted activity or not.” According to the majority, employees would reasonably read the broad and unqualified language of the rules to prohibit recording Section 7 activity.
The decision suggests that a “no recordings” rule that exempts protected activities could be valid. But where to draw the line between protected and unprotected activities remains an open question. Given the NLRB’s tendency to construe the scope of Section 7 activities broadly, a wide range of business discussions could be considered to involve protected activity and thus exempt from a “no recordings” rule. This would make the rule virtually useless. The NLRB’s decision may not be last word on recording rules, however, as Whole Foods has appealed the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Your employees may return to the office after the holidays with new gadgets strapped to their wrist. Wearable devices like the Apple Watch, Android Wear smart watch, and FitBit are some of the hottest holiday gifts of 2015. Or maybe your company gave wearable devices as gifts to its employees. Either way, wearables are showing up more and more in the office. With that trend come a slew of legal concerns. Here are some of the legal issues created by wearables to be aware of:
Wearable devices make it easier to violate privacy rights. If the wearable device is employer-issued, it could be used to track and monitor employees. Be sure to give notice to employees before doing that, and obtain their written consent to having their activity monitored. Employees should be told what information the company collects and how it will be used. If your workforce is unionized, use of wearables for monitoring purposes may be a point for collective bargaining.
Then there’s the privacy of co-workers. Some wearables can record audio and video, but they’re generally less detectable than smartphones and cameras. An employees’ ability to record interactions with co-workers and customers without their knowledge raises a variety of legal challenges. Workplace policies should explain the circumstances under which certain categories may or may not be used and describe the kind of notice employees who use wearables in the workplace must give to co-workers and customers.
If a wearable device is allowed access to the company network, it should be subject to BYOD policies like use of encryption, strong password requirements, device locks, etc. Don’t let wearables be an undetected hole in your network’s security. Also be sure to preserve the right to collect work-related information stored on your employees’ wearable devices, as such access might be necessary to comply with information requests in an investigation or litigation.
Smartphones and web browsers already give employees plenty of opportunities to engage in distractions that kill productivity, and wearables make that problem even more challenging. Consider modifying your workplace policies to address the use of company resources and company time to engage in personal activity using wearables.