One Employer’s Response to a Social Media Nightmare

By Eric B. Meyer

Earlier this year, a Philadelphia-area teacher was suspended after her school learned about nasty comments on her personal blog concerning her students. More on the history of that here, here, and here.

Now, word has it that the school is considering a social-media policy. Well, it’s about time! But what’s in the policy and does it go too far?

According to this report from Christina Kristofic of The Intelligencer, the draft social media policy prohibits district staff from engaging in 21 different “improper electronic communications.”

Among the forbidden activities are calling students on personal cell phones, sending text messages to students, emailing students or parents from a personal email account, “friending” students on Facebook and other social networks, shopping on-line from a school computer, posting anything on-line that would be “disruptive to the educational process” and using a district computer to blog for anything other than educational purposes. (my emphasis)”

I get the rules involving contact between teachers and students. Face-to-face, telephone, and school email accounts should suffice as lines of communication. (You can read more on my thoughts about social-media communications between students and teachers here).

The shopping online from a school computer I understand too, insofar as teachers are doing it on “school”-time versus on “break”-time. But the last two points above, which I emphasized? Really?

Is the school overreacting?

Fortunately for the school, it is not covered under the National Labor Relations Act. Therefore, the school can avoid the hammer that the National Labor Relations Board has been swinging recently at overly-broad social-media policies.

However, the school is covered under Pennsylvania’s Act 195, which, like the NLRA, affords employees the right to organize (or not to organize) and to discuss terms and conditions of employment (i.e., engage in “concerted activity”). Therefore, any employer activity that chills employee rights under Act 195, particularly the right to engage in concerted activity, could be viewed as unlawful.

Also consider that, unlike private-sector employees, those who work in the public sector can exercise certain free-speech rights without fear of discipline from their employer. Would a teacher who addressed school-related matters of public concern online be “disruptive to the educational process?” I wouldn’t want to test that in court if I were the school.

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But let’s put aside the law for a second. Does it make sense to have such an overly broad social-media policy, when something more narrowly-tailored would do the trick? There are times to bring a gun to a knife fight. (Remember The Untouchables? Don’t click this video unless you’re ok with a surly Sean Connery making two ethnic slurs as he tries to mow down an uninvited Italian house guest). Drafting handbook policies isn’t one of them.

And, while I get that some employers want to limit employee use of their computer infrastructure to work-related activities, in practice there can be big-time problems with monitoring and enforcement. Moreover, what’s the harm of a teacher who, on a lunch break, updates a personal blog? As long as she’s not “pulling a Natalie Munroe” or damaging the computer network, who cares?

But enough talk from me. What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (, which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.


1 Comment on “One Employer’s Response to a Social Media Nightmare

  1. I definitely agree with you Eric. It’s far too difficult and time consuming to monitor employee social media activity as closely as some companies would like. Even if you designated a team to “watch” employee activity online, subjectivity would certainly come into play. What one person finds offensive, another would find funny. What one person thinks is proprietary, another would see as obvious. It can be a very slippery slope. Email sparked a lot of the same discussions in the beginning, but companies don’t monitor each and every email an employee sends. Sure, they can go back and look at the files if a problem is identified through other means, but they aren’t reading daily correspondence. When you think about it, email IS social media. Emails can be shared publicly and forwarded too – and people still include all sorts of important, offensive, proprietary, etc. information in them. One method may reach more people more quickly than the other but, in theory, what’s the difference?

    We operate under the following philosophy:

    1. We cannot control what employees are going to do online in their free time. Some employees will make good decisions, others will make bad decisions.
    2. While we closely monitor the internet for the company as a whole, we cannot spend the resources to monitor what our employees do online everyday.
    3. Employees need to know where the lines are BEFORE they cross them. There should be clear, written guidelines outlining parameters so no one taken off-guard, should an issue arise.
    4. We want our employees to get involved in social media and will educate them on best practices at their request.
    5. A happy culture creates happy employees which are great brand ambassadors. Of course, no company is perfect and there are always dissenters, but if a company is so concerned about social media that they are “bringing a gun to a knife fight,” then they need to take a good, hard look at themselves to find out why that is – and possibly make some internal changes that have nothing to do with the web.

    We have two social media policies in place – one for designated spokespeople and one for the entire company. No one was really phased, as they are based in common sense and convey a level of trust that our employees took to heart.

    Would love to hear from others about their approach!

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