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Responding to Employees’ Personal Social Networking

Imagine that one of your employees has her own webpage. One day, you find out that she’s posted a satirical picture poking fun at the company on her site. Then you learn that another employee sounded off about his supervisor on his blog after he received a negative performance evaluation. Can you do anything about their conduct? Or are employees free to write whatever they want on their own time on their personal Internet pages, no matter the light it casts on you as an employer?

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Why the fuss about employees’ social networking?
Obviously, social networking is becoming more mainstream with each passing day. Some people have blogs, some have their own webpages, and some are members of social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. Others “tweet” on Twitter or are a part of an ever-increasing number of professional networking groups.

Not surprisingly, almost every company will have employees who are involved in some aspect of the latest social networking phenomenon. And while most employers have a general understanding of how to regulate employees’ use of the Internet and company resources at work, you may not know what to do when an employee uses his own personal account or webpage at home to disparage your business.

Many employers have been passive in addressing these problems, but some have been aggressive. In fact, there’s even a term for firing an employee for posting something inappropriate on the Internet. It’s called “doocing.”

While there may be cases when an employer can immediately fire an employee who posts something negative about their business, there are many dangers lurking around the corner for an unsuspecting employer that automatically wants to dooce the employee in every situation. Let’s examine some of the potential pitfalls that exist in these scenarios.

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Before you hit the enter button
As with most employment decisions, you need to be careful not to expose your company to discrimination claims if you decide to discipline an employee who posts something offensive about the company on a social networking or other website. For the most part, that means being consistent in your decision making. While it’s true that employees can say many different things in different places in the Internet world with different consequences for your business, reacting in generally the same way to similar situations will put you in the best position to avoid a claim that someone was singled out.

Employers that discipline employees for posting something damaging about the company on the Internet might also find themselves facing retaliation claims. This understandable danger is particularly acute if the employee posts a blog entry or says something on the Internet that could be considered whistle-blowing. The examples at the beginning of the article were basic scenarios. But what about an employee who says the plant where he works is unsafe?

Another area of danger arises when the employee talks about wages or other terms or conditions of employment. While you may want to keep that information confidential, federal labor law allows employees — even those who aren’t unionized — to engage in “concerted activity” for their own protection. That might include several of your employees meeting on a network group or otherwise communicating with each other online. This is a particularly thorny area because “terms or conditions of employment” can be construed quite broadly.

Again, these are only a few examples. Employers may also want to think about whether disciplining an employee for blogging about work would run afoul of his privacy rights or, if you’re a public employer, his First Amendment rights.

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Bottom line
In this day and age, almost every employer is bound to have an employee who says something negative about work in the social networking world. That doesn’t automatically mean you should “dooce” him without considering the potential consequences. Because a case-by-case analysis is usually necessary, employers should probably consult legal counsel before taking any action in these situations.

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What does it mean to be Dooced (dooce, doocing)
Having lost your job because of something you put in an Internet weblog

The MacMillan English Dictionary once posted the above definition and the following information about “dooced” when it appeared as the online dictionary’s “Word of the Week.” The full article can be found at www.macmillandictionaries.com/wordoftheweek/archive/050131-dooced.htm. Although it originated in England, the term has now made it into the American language.

If you’ve had a particularly bad day at work and you’re about to vent your frustrations by posting them on your blog (online diary), then after reading this article you might want to think again. If you write something in your blog which can be perceived as incriminating, you may unwittingly expose yourself to the possibility of being dooced!

The term dooced made its British English debut in January 2005, when Joe Gordon, a senior bookseller in the shop Waterstone’s in Edinburgh, was sacked, allegedly having made offensive remarks about the company in his online satirical newsletter, Woolamaloo Gazette. The affair was a British precedent, though over in the United States there have been various recorded incidents during the last couple of years of what has been referred to as doocing, the noun deriving from dooced. Doocing may not always result from what people have written. Among the more high-profile examples, in 2004 was the case of Ellen Simonetti, a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, who was sacked when her managers found “inappropriate” photos of her in her uniform on her website.