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As a lawyer who focuses on social media issues, I am often asked whether employers should “block” their employees from accessing Facebook during working hours. These employers are concerned that their employees are wasting time online, engaging in inappropriate online behavior and exposing their companies to liability.
In a perfect world, all employees would studiously do their work at their desks, and not visit any websites unrelated to work. However, as we all know, the reality is that Facebook is the new Solitaire, and companies are struggling to strike a balance between controlling their work environment and giving their employees room to engage with others online.
This question involves two critical issues – cultural and legal. The work-culture issues are outside the scope of this essay, but suffice to say, some employers view social media access as critically necessary for team-building, marketing, employee morale and general camaraderie within the office. Conversely, other employers view social media as completely unnecessary and distracting from the tasks at hand.
This article focuses instead on the legal issues, of which there are many. Employers are most concerned about potential liability caused by their employees. For example, an employee could post some confidential or negative information about a client or customer on Facebook. This could give rise to a claim that the employee – and by extension, the employer – breached some duty owed to the client or customer.
Another common Facebook-specific issue involves harassment. Years ago, sexual and other harassment used to occur in hallways, conference rooms and later, via email. Now, much of this harassment has found a new home online, specifically on Facebook. Status updates, pictures, “likes,” “pokes,” and chats are all fertile ground for harassment. Compounding matters is that employers often are unaware of this behavior, unless and until someone brings it to their attention. Worse yet, unlike traditional harassment, this behavior often occurs after working hours, on the weekend, or on personal mobile devices not owned or controlled by employers. Simply put, the explosion of Facebook in the workplace has made it much more difficult for employers to police their workplace.