HR Struggles With Employee Web Posts

Fired auto-club workers learn that free speech on the Web can carry a high price.
Blogging and other cyberactivities are giving companies new reasons to pull out the ol' employee handbook to revise conduct policies. It also should prompt some workers to dust off their common sense.

Last month, the Automobile Club of Southern California, an affiliate of AAA, fired 27 employees after a co-worker complained about harassing and insulting comments the employees made in postings on MySpace .com, a social-networking Web site. During its investigation into the matter, the auto club also discovered that some of the employees, including administrative and roadside-assistance workers, had discussed on the site plans to disrupt emergency road service to club members.

"Not sending a tow truck, that hits at the core of our services," says a spokeswoman for the auto club, who wouldn't speculate about why employees were planning mischief. "That's very dangerous." The posted comments led to the decision to fire the workers.

The employees were fired even though the comments weren't posted during work hours, nor did they use company computers to make the postings. Labor attorneys say First Amendment free-speech rights don't preclude private employers from setting standards for employee behavior for off-hour activities such as cyberspace commentary that's disparaging to the company or constitutes harassment of co-workers.

Rules covering online activities to add to employee-conduct policies
BE RESPECTFUL Blogs shouldn't attack an employer, supervisor, managers, co-workers, or a company's products or its customers
CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION Bloggers must comply with policies that protect trade secrets and confidential information
SECURITIES REGULATIONS Bloggers shouldn't disclose "insider information" governed by securities laws or violate disclosure "blackout" periods"
TRADEMARKS AND LOGOS Personnel policies should spell out if and when company names, logos, and trademarks can be reproduced in online postings and blogs
Data: Littler Mendelson
Employers generally aren't prevented from taking action against employees who make negative comments about other workers, create a hostile work environment, or are involved in other activities--even outside of the workplace--that don't meet a company's conduct standards, says Larry Lorber, a labor attorney with the Proskauer Rose LLP law firm. Only a few states, including New York, have laws that prohibit employers from firing workers for off-hour behavior other than illegal activities or unauthorized moonlighting.

Corporate policies governing blogging and other employee cyberactivities are still evolving. Human-resources policies often need to catch up with challenges that new technologies present in the workplace. The automobile club doesn't have a specific policy about employee blogging, instant messaging, or other cyberactivities. "We're looking into what we should do about that now," the spokeswoman says.

Some companies already are updating their employee-conduct and harassment rules to specifically address behavior on the Web, even when workers are off-duty or off company premises. "If companies are going to police these activities, then they should make the policies clear," Lorber says.

Advertising company J. Walter Thompson Co. is considering a blogging policy for employees. If approved by company management, the guidelines will advise employees against using personal blogs to bad-mouth the company, clients, or other employees. The company won't actively monitor employees' personal blogs, but if it gets a complaint, employees will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, says Sean Mulholland, a search-engine marketing manager at JWT Specialized Communications (a wholly owned subsidiary of J. Walter Thompson), who wrote the guidelines.

Just as employees learned a few years ago that company E-mail systems were monitored by their employers, employees will begin to better understand that their behavior on the Web--whether blogging on a company Web site or posting messages about an employer on a third-party site--can have job consequences, Lorber says.

Bottom line: Employees can't say whatever they want, wherever they want, without potential repercussions.

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