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Cats, Racism and Other Reasons You Need a Social Media Policy

Cat with two color eyes.jpgThere's a reason cats are so popular on the Internet. Cats can be funny without opening their mouths — a fact lost on a surprising number of humans.

In the past couple of years, countless people have fallen on the wrong side of that fine line between amusing and egregious by texting, tweeting, posting and otherwise sharing the most inappropriate thoughts and opinions.

Too bad they're damaging their careers — and your brand — in the process.

Did You Really Say That?

From offensive comments about President Obama's dead grandmother to insensitive quips about AIDS in Africa, we have collectively endured what appears on the surface to be the worst of human nature. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll discover a bigger problem.

The vast majority of people online are neither depraved nor psychotic: They just want to be funny and popular, like those cats that slide down the stairs like a slinky

I'm not going to belabor the story of Justine Sacco, who made a racist tweet as she boarded an 11-hour flight to South Africa. Sacco has already paid the price for her impulsivity and carelessness: She's been publically humiliated and fired from her job as chief communications director at IAC, a media and Internet company with more than 150 brands and products.

But the story raises some universal issues that perceptive companies will at least pause to consider. How should businesses reconcile their desires to encourage employee use of social media with the reality that common sense is a very uncommon thing? In an era of instant mass communication, can businesses really expect employees to think before they tweet, pause before they post and weigh the impact of whatever they plan to say against their intrinsic desires to be clever and comedic?

Sacco described herself, in her now deleted Twitter account, as a "troublemaker" known for her "loud laugh." Months before the so-called tweet heard around the world, she publicly questioned whether she could be fired for things she tweeted while intoxicated.

Shouldn't any of this have raised multiple red flags — along with the ghost of the robot from the 1960s TV series Lost in Space warning "Danger, danger"?

But then what? Does a business have any right to restrict or control what a person states on social media, especially if that person clearly identifies her employer in her profile?

Murky Water

You may presume that a company has the right to craft a common-sense social media policy that protects its reputation, its trade secrets and keeps its employees from shooting themselves in their respective feet. But as I mentioned earlier, common sense isn't common — and, depending on where in the world your company is based, you may not have the right to set down broad prohibitions against discussing even controversial issues like religion or politics.

In the US, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been scrutinizing and striking down employers’ social media policies for the past few years. Specifically, it has been evaluating policies to see if they violate the employee bill of rights in Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) — which protects the rights of employees to discuss wages and other working conditions. And the rulings have been broader than you might expect. As Alyesha Asghar Dotson, an associate with the law firm of Spilman Thomas & Battle in Charleston, W.Va. explained in a blog post on social media policies:

The NLRB said that social media policies that could 'reasonably be construed to chill Section 7 rights,' such as discouraging communication regarding working conditions among employees or requiring permission to engage in protected, concerted activity will be deemed unlawful. A policy need not explicitly prohibit protected speech to be unlawful. A policy that has a vaguely defined impact or which contains no limiting language can also be unlawful."

 

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