Originally Published by Today’s Veterinary Business, December 2018

Use of the internet, particularly social media, can be a double-edged sword, especially in the workplace. On the plus side, it can be a wonderful vehicle for marketing your practice and otherwise connecting with clients and potential clients. On the darker side, what happens when an employee posts content that can have a negative impact on the practice? Should you respond? If so, how should you respond? If a post is offensive, do you have the option of disciplining, even firing, that employee?

Because people in general are so openly sharing thoughts and opinions on social media, it’s not surprising that many experts believe that terminations based on employees posting inappropriate content will continue to increase. Handling this type of issue at your practice can be challenging for your human resource team, given that this is a fairly new type of problem to tackle – but, finding the right approach is crucial, given that just one post has the potential to blow up into a public relations and human resource disaster.

So, how do you respond to, say, a sexist-sounding post on an employee’s page? Although you don’t want to over-react or react emotionally in the moment, and you don’t want to micro-manage your employees, here’s the crux of the situation, distilled into just one sentence. How much potential damage could a particular post have on your practice’s reputation?

What’s important is that you respond fairly, not allowing one person who, say, has a knack of being humorous in his or her posts more leeway for the same type of material that another employee posts in a more serious manner. And, if you choose not to respond, be aware that you’re still really responding – giving the message that you either are fine with the posts or you aren’t concerned with the messaging. And, although a non-response is sometimes the right choice, in today’s business environment, your practice could also be harmed by this more passive approach.

What You Can – and Cannot – Do

At a minimum, you should create a policy about your employees’ use of social media while at work. Be clear about what an employee can and cannot do, and then consistently adhere to that policy. You have the option of banning social media use entirely while on the job. If, of course, someone’s job includes posting for the practice, you’ll have to clearly delineate what is and isn’t permissible during work hours.

However, you cannot ban employees from talking about work-related issues online when they aren’t at work, and they are legally permitted to discuss topics with one another on social media that fall within protected concerted guidelines. Employees can, for example, discuss their dissatisfaction about management style at the practice, how much they’re getting paid and so forth on Facebook or Twitter, as just two examples.

Employees are not protected and can be fired, though, when they discuss these issues online with someone outside of the practice, as this no longer falls into the category of co-worker dialogue about the workplace. They can also be terminated for sharing information that is deemed confidential, including but not limited to trade secrets.

Employees aren’t protected when talking about a workplace topic that isn’t related to employment terms. If someone calls a manager “lazy,” that communication may ultimately be protected. If the employee posts, though, that the manager is “fat,” then that may open the employee up for termination. Or if an employee posts that “my veterinary office is full of ugly people,” this is leaving the realm of employment-related discussions.

It can be difficult to discern when a post crosses the line, so your practice may need help with an attorney experienced in this type of law to determine legalities of particular posts. Note that laws can differ by state so, if your company has practices in more than one of them, you may not be able to make blanket social media policies. Employee protection is especially strong in California, Colorado, Louisiana, New York and North Dakota. Also, be aware that employee protection about social media postings applies to unionized as well as non-unionized employees.

Hate Speech and Protected Classes

You can fire employees who engage in hate speech. Sometimes a post clearly contains hate speech, while at other times, it is borderline. Hate speech is defined as communication that has no purpose or meaning other than expressing a feeling of hatred for a particular group, perhaps focused on race, ethnicity or gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion and so forth.

When Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Practice

Your policy should contain clear guidelines about what is and isn’t permitted while at work, and also explicitly state that trade secrets and the like must remain confidential. The policy should ask employees to not use social media to post defamatory material that could create a hostile work environment. It is also reasonable to ask them to preface any social media remarks made about the practice online with a disclaimer that you don’t represent your employer’s point of view. It makes good sense to be proactive, too, and run your social media policy past your practice’s attorney.

As a creative solution, some companies are providing social media breaks for their employees throughout the day, perhaps 15 minutes in length, a couple of times per day. This can give everyone a chance to relax and refresh their minds. The goal isn’t to completely restrict your employees from ever using social media (which isn’t do-able, anyhow) but to encourage moderate use in appropriate ways. If you want to use this strategy, outline specifics in your social media policy.

Sharing Your Social Media Policy with Employees

How you share the news about your social media policy can go a long way in determining how well it is received. For example, you could pick a day to get some pizzas for your employees, and use that as an occasion to have a discussion on your social media policy. Explain why having the policy is so important in today’s times, and educate them on the problems that can arise when this form of communication isn’t appropriately used.

As you share the role that social media and its messaging plays in your practice’s culture and values, using a helpful approach is more likely to be successful than leaving the impression that you don’t trust your employees and plan to monitor their every message. And sometimes, by simply educating employees on privacy setting options in social media, you can help to prevent an unpleasant situation.

Share examples of appropriate/acceptable posts and ones that cross the line, and be open to questions, concerns and employee feedback. Getting employees to buy into your policy is a big step forward.

Monitoring Social Media

In general, avoid monitoring a specific employee’s social media accounts to watch for inappropriate comments. If you’re aware of a controversial comment, let that employee know how you plan to investigate and then review the situation with him or her. Then do exactly that.

When you follow up with the employee, get his or her side of the story. In some cases, the comment is so inflammatory that termination may be the only response. Other times, what the employee has to say may provide context that allows for lesser forms of discipline. Remember to be consistent and to follow up appropriately with everyone involved at the practice. As needed, update your social media policy and share it with all of your employees.

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