Three Workplace Issues to Consider About the Internet
When you think about legal issues associated with the internet that can affect veterinary practices, you may think about telemedicine – and that is an excellent example, although not the only internet-based legal issue faced by practices today. This article provides an overview of three different legal issues associated with the internet.
Researching Potential Employees on Social Media
Social media makes it so easy to find information; including about people your practice is considering hiring. But, is it legitimate to search on social media platforms to discover information about job candidates? As with most broad questions posed about the ever-evolving internet, the answer is “it depends.”
It is not, in general, illegal to research job applicants’ social media profiles, but don’t do so haphazardly. Instead, create a clear written policy about what sites will be reviewed to find what clearly-defined pieces of information. Also determine who will review these profiles and what information will be housed in your records. To add a layer of protection to your social media policy, consider having a person without the ability to hire, a non-decision maker, do the research.
Make sure you follow your policy consistently for all candidates, not only certain ones. If you act inconsistently when an issue involves a protected class, this could open you up to a discrimination lawsuit. A protected class is any group of people with common characteristics who have legal protections from discrimination because of those characteristics. These characteristics include race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, pregnancy status, disabilities and more.
Here’s how something could quickly go wrong. Let’s say you obtain a piece of information that theoretically could lead to your not hiring a candidate. Then let’s say you don’t hire that candidate, but this piece of information had no bearing on your decision whatsoever. The candidate could still claim a connection between your hiring decision and an employment or labor law violation.
Here’s another issue to consider. If your investigation includes a review of the job applicants’ credit history, financial history, driver’s license verification and/or other pieces of related information, you may run afoul of the U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Employee Use of the Internet
As of September 2016, 87 percent of people in the United States use the internet, according to PewInternet.org. And, according to another PewInternet.org report from November 2016, 79 percent of Americans who use the internet are on Facebook. Smaller percentages of people are on other social media channels, such as Instagram (32 percent), Pinterest (31 percent), LinkedIn (29 percent) and Twitter (24 percent).
The bottom line, though, is that virtually every veterinary practice in the country will have at least some employees who use the internet – so, how do you, as a practice, monitor employees’ internet use while on the clock? Employees want privacy in their internet use, whereas the practice wants to make sure that time on the clock is well spent. Employers also want to ensure that computer use in the practice does not involve any inappropriate or even illegal activities.
The solution? However you choose to monitor employee usage, do so consistently, and create a clear written policy about internet use during company hours. If you don’t provide this policy, then employees could have justification for a breach of privacy lawsuit. If you decide to monitor, what are your options? Some practices may decide to install site-blocking software on all office computers or use software that limits the amount of time that someone can browse a non-work-related site.
What about texting? Should your employees be allowed to text during work hours? Again, a clear written policy about text use is crucial so employees know what is and isn’t acceptable. When crafting the policy, consider context. Having an employee ask his or her child to text when he or she is home from school is a very different situation from an employee who texts about party plans when he or she should be helping with an agitated patient.
Internet Harassment and Cyber Bullying in the Workplace
A serious downside to the internet is online harassment and cyber bullying, and that unfortunately can take place among coworkers. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, a clear written policy about how online harassment and cyber bullying will not be tolerated is crucial. In this statement, clearly define what you mean by harassment and by bullying, and state that examples given in your policy do not constitute the full range of behaviors that fall into these two categories. Share the consequences, up to and including termination, if the policies are not followed.
Consider working with your entire practice team to develop a values statement so that employees can play a role in its formation. Besides creating a useful statement, if you sit in on the meeting, you can likely identify people who are less likely to abide by it.
If you notice higher turnover, be especially vigilant in watching for bullying behaviors and, when identified, deal with them firmly. Also watch out for behaviors and statements that are presented as jokes, with people who don’t find them funny being told they have no sense of humor and need to lighten up.
If someone comes to you to report bullying or harassing behaviors – ones that are occurring to the person reporting them or to someone else – take them seriously. Slow down, listen and respond accordingly. Also consider what resources to offer to people being bullied or harassed, from stress management strategies to counseling services.
These are three of the more common legal issues connected to internet use in the workplace, but this is not a comprehensive list. Use this article as your starting point and remember to update your policies and procedures as internet technology evolves. Also watch for information about court cases where boundaries of cyber bullying are adjudicated in the courtroom.