HR struggling with Facebook snitches

“This place is a hell hole. If I had a car today I would up and quit.”

This is a real Facebook status update referenced in a discussion on the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) member bulletin board. The question raised: What should be the next step for the manager? Discussion? Termination? Nothing?

It’s a scenario played out in workplaces all over the world, experts say -- people tattling on their Facebook friends.

When Philadelphia attorney Eric Meyer of Dillworth Paxson and Associates LLP, asked HR professionals during a SHRM conference in March if they were receiving complaints from employees about their colleagues’ Facebook activities, nearly half of the attendees raised hands.

Some employees are apparently now showing employers -- via printout or on their smartphones or computers -- the derogatory or demeaning status updates of colleagues who happen to be Facebook friends.

“I was shocked at the number of HR professionals who informed me at [the conference] that they had dealt with this issue,” Meyer wrote later during a discussion on Twitter. In subsequent interviews, Meyer and other experts said this is one of many reasons why employers should keep abreast of social media rulings by the National Labor Relations Board. It is why having a social media policy is important, they added.

Many employers “do not realize that [even] in a nonunion workforce, the National Labor Relations Act rules apply,” said Steven Suflas, labor and employment partner at Ballard Spahr in New Jersey. Those rules “protect concerted activities by employees,” meaning that employees venting on a social networking site can talk about work—with caveats. However, employers must consider the nature of such postings.

But back to the key question: What to do?

Don’t panic

“It’s time to apply some critical thinking skills,” said HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann. “First things first; this status update might not be what you perceive it to be. There is a term on Facebook called vaguebooking. The update might be referring to someone or something else, and even when it’s direct and clear, it might not be clear. The update might be part of a bigger story you know nothing about,” she said.

“I would ask the manager a few questions about the alleged offender’s behavior in the office,” she continued. “Is this person a good worker?” Are tasks being completed “on time? Are there any issues with attendance, morale or interoffice politics? Get the back story on performance,” she said.

“In most instances, unless the situation appeared serious and put someone in harm’s way, I would let the situation pass,” said Joey V. Price, CEO of JumpStartHR, a consultancy. “People have always been disgruntled about the workplace. We vent to our friends, we vent to our co-workers, we even vent to our manager’s manager. The fact that people are venting is not new, but social media is a new medium, which leaves the opportunity for someone to vent in a more public/permanent space -- which can make this tricky to deal with.”

“Without a policy in place, it’s really hard to advise what the next step is,” Sean Charles, an HR social media consultant and trainer in Vancouver, British Columbia, told SHRM Online. Price added: “Companies should be proactive and offer corporate training of social media use, since this can answer questions before they become issues.”

Too much information

“People should understand that they are accountable for their social media persona,” said Janine Truitt, senior HR representative at Brookhaven National Laboratory. “In the same way that they can choose what content to put out there, they can choose who they associate themselves with,”

“Being totally transparent on your Facebook page is a big risk. … It can come back to haunt you,” Charles said.

Consider this:

“An employee at this company decided that she was going to take a picture of a co-worker’s cubicle” and she posted it “to her Facebook page with a status like ‘slob’ or something along those lines,” Truitt said of an incident relayed to her. “She was friends with a few of the clients of this company and they saw the picture and commented. It became a joke online [until] one of those clients print-screened the page and sent it to her boss.” The woman who posted the photo was fired, and “two other employees were cited for similar derogatory writing on [the Facebook post].”

The fact that one employee was fired and the others were not is yet another reason why companies need social media policies that are “consistent,” Truitt said.

Some things should be “saved only for our closest friends and shouldn’t be posted on Facebook,” Charles added.

“At the end of the day, you need to take the philosophy that everything you say on the Internet is public, regardless of your privacy settings,” because “no matter where you’re posting it, it can be made public,” he said.

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Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

© 2012 SHRM. All rights reserved.

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