Seyfarth Synopsis: While targeted social media ads may help employers find potential applicants with specific skill sets, inartfully crafted ads may open the door to discrimination claims, particularly in California.

We’ve already told you about the parade of horribles employers may face when using social media when making hiring decisions.

Well, more social media, more problems.

Micro-Targeting May Open The Door To Discrimination Claims

What is micro-targeting, you ask? Remember when you looked up discount flights to Hawaii, and then for the next three weeks, all of your feeds taunted you with ads for more flights, hotels, surf lessons in Kauai and hula skirts? Well, it’s kind of like that.

Social media platforms collect virtually endless volumes of personal data. This practice enables increasingly intricate advertising algorithms to push out content to very specific demographics. Suppose your business wants to advertise to the select group of people who have expressed an interest in the Montessori method, or who juggle, or who space travel and live in three specific zip codes. Micro-targeting was made for you.

Micro-targeting has expanded into the employment context, with some potentially problematic implications. One class action pending in California federal court alleges that Facebook ads targeted to people within certain age ranges are discriminatory. Similar claims could crop up in seemingly innocuous situations if, for example, an employer targeted ads to fellow graduates of his alma mater, which happened to be an all-male prep school.

As a result, employers who recruit via social media should proceed with caution if their ads in any way target (or exclude) persons in a legally protected category.

Particular Risks for California Employers

Federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, citizenship status, and genetic information. Of course, California is a bit different.  California extends its protections to prevent discrimination because of additional characteristics, including ancestry, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, medical condition, political activities or affiliations, and military or veteran status. As a result, for example, an ad geared towards trying to recruit politically liberal or conservative candidates may raise peculiar legal issues in California.

Workplace Solutions

Employers need to understand their recruitment practices, and decide whether micro-targeting can ever be the right approach for them. When employers decide to use targeted ads, they should do so with relevant employment laws in mind and take steps to minimize potential exposure. Because HR managers or marketing departments may not be aware of the additional sensitivities that arise when advertising in the employment context (particularly in California), additional training on this subject may be helpful.

If you have any questions regarding your workplace’s online recruitment practices, your favorite Seyfarth attorney is only a few clicks away.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Even if bad Glassdoor reviews have you feeling like you need to fight back, employers should stay out of the ring, and instead implement social media policies that clearly define prohibited behavior and disclosures, while spelling out the consequences for violations. Employers must not retaliate against employees for their lawful out-of-office behavior.

People are used to sharing everything about their lives—from what they ate for breakfast to the funny name on their Starbucks Frappuccino. But this behavior can be scary for employers when current and former employees take to social media to complain about their jobs—or even defame their boss. Of particular interest are online platforms such as Glassdoor, which purport to provide “inside” information about working conditions, salaries, and company culture.

So what can an employer do when an employee posts a negative comment on Glassdoor about the company? The answer is … not much. The law often protects an employee’s off-duty speech. But the law does not protect defamatory speech, and it does not protect the disclosure of confidential, protected information. So proactive employers can take steps to make sure they are not unfairly smeared online and that their trade secrets are protected. We have a few suggestions in that regard.

What Are You Tryin’ To Prove: Don’t Get In The Ring

Websites such as Glassdoor, which has about 30 million monthly users, allow current and former employees to criticize or praise a company, typically through anonymous posts. Though many such sites screen critiques to prevent the posting of offensive comments and those that would disclose private information, they nonetheless present a conundrum for employers: Do you ignore criticism—even if it’s false—or do you respond to it? The former tactic can permit damage to an employer brand to go unchecked; the latter can make an employer look defensive.

In this new age of information, job applicants search employer review sites for information about companies. Responding to a negative review can help your brand if you do so in a way that shows the organization is genuinely committed to improving. But a response could also provide more fodder for further negativity, so it’s best to try to get ahead of the problem by making changes in-house, if necessary.

If your employees are posting on social media outside of working hours, California’s constitutional right to privacy can protect them from retaliation. Labor Code section 96(k) protects employees where they have engaged in lawful conduct asserting “recognized constitutional rights,” such as free speech postings on social media, occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises. A better avenue is to get ahead of the problem and educate employees about what they can and can’t post online about the company.

Put Your Robe On—And Implement a Social Media Policy

You can restrict free speech online for current employees with a social media policy (but only up to a point!). Employers should have a social media policy that prohibits posting confidential information about the company (and perhaps about posting anything about the company at all) without permission from the company’s public relations group. Every employee is required to follow the company’s legally compliant policies even if they are stricter than what the law would otherwise allow. If an employee violates your policies, that employee could be subject to employment discipline up to and including termination.

That said, there are limits to the restrictions employers can place on what employees can say about them online. The National Labor Relations Act protects the rights of workers to discuss wages and working conditions with other workers. These protections apply to posts on social media, so your social media policy cannot prevent employees from communicating with other employees online about the company’s pay or working conditions, such as might be the case with a Glassdoor review.

For example, in analyzing one company’s social media policy that forbade employees from making anonymous posts about the company online, the NLRB’s general counsel found that “requiring employees to publicly self-identify in order to participate in protected activity imposes an unwarranted burden on Section 7 rights [of the National Labor Relations Act]. Thus, we found this rule banning anonymous comments unlawfully overbroad.”

You Never Got Me Down—Employers’ One-Two Punch Combo for Dealing with Social Media

  • It is prudent for employers to prepare and implement a social media in the workplace policy in order to avoid risks of disclosure of confidential and proprietary information and claims of cyberbullying, harassment, and discrimination.
  • Social media policies should clearly articulate the legitimate business interests the employer seeks to protect, as well as provide clear definitions of prohibited behavior and private and confidential information, and spell out the consequences for violations of the policy.
  • Employers should use caution when disciplining employees based on social networking activities, as certain union and nonunion employee rights need to be considered.
  • An employer may discipline an employee for posting negative comments on a social networking site if the employee’s comments are offensive or inappropriate, and not related to employment issues, and should do so on a consistent basis.

Workplace Solutions: Employers should open up a dialogue with employees about social media and encourage them to bring grievances to Human Resources, instead of airing their grievances online. Employers should also avoid retaliating against employees for posting on social media outside of work hours, and implement social media policies that clearly articulate the penalties for posting confidential information, and any defamatory statements.

Edited by Coby Turner

Seyfarth Synopsis: As Californians grow tragically familiar with wildfire, California employers face another threat of fire in the form of defamation lawsuits. The rapidly burning #MeToo anti-harassment movement, and constant talk in the news about peoples’ reputations being destroyed, has rained down fire and fury for California employers forced to consider possible defamation lawsuits by current or former employees.

Stoking the Fire: How Defamation Lawsuits Begin

Workplace defamation lawsuits can flare up in various ways: the administration of performance reviews, background and reference checks, and conducting workplace investigations. But the fires often burn fiercest in the context of harassment lawsuits. In defending a workplace harassment lawsuit, employers must use caution in making any statement about the litigation that could harm a plaintiff’s reputation, particularly where it comes to providing employment references. Employers who fail to do so put themselves at risk of permitting a rumor mill that sets themselves up for a defamation lawsuit.

Red, Orange, and Yellow Flames: Standards for Defamation, Libel, and Slander

Under California law, defamation is a false statement made about another person that harms the person’s reputation. California, unlike some states, has separate standards for written defamation (libel) and oral defamation (slander).

Usually a defamation plaintiff must prove damage to profession or occupation, but sometimes the statements are so controversial that the words alone are deemed to cause harm. A false statement that an employee “sexually assaulted” another employee might fall into that category, as might a false statement that an employee “colluded with a competitor,” as these statements might imply an individual is professionally unfit.

In the workplace (and especially in the harassment context), statements are more likely to damage a person’s profession or occupation because they will likely relate to the person’s reputation.

What Can I Do If a Fire Catches?

Here are three situations that could spark a defamation claim and what employers can do to douse any flame:

  1. An employee volunteers that you disciplined a former employee for sexual harassment, when talking to a prospective employer for the former employee.
    • Solution: Have a written policy that restricts what your company will tell prospective employers of your former employees. Do not provide substantive information regarding an employee’s reasons for leaving your company, and provide that all inquiries go to Human Resources and limit HR’s responses to the former employee’s job title and dates of employment.
  2. A supervisor emails another supervisor that an employee seeking to transfer to another department is “stupid and crazy.”
    • Solution: Train supervisors on appropriate language to use in the workplace and while providing coaching or performance improvement plans to employees who are struggling in their job performance.
  3. A company representative posts on Facebook that a former employee’s actions were “felonious” after the employee sues the company for retaliating against him for whistleblowing.
    • Solution: Instruct company representatives to refrain from posting on social media or making statements to the media regarding any pending lawsuit against the company.

Extinguishing the Fire: An Employer’s Potential Defenses

As long as the statement was not made to purposely harm a person’s reputation and it was not known to be false, employers have an arsenal of affirmative defenses with which to combat defamation fires. These defenses include:

  • Truth,
  • Consent,
  • Qualified Privilege—applying to communications to others expressing concerns on matters of common interest (e.g., job references to other employers), and
  • Absolute Privilege—applying to communications made in certain legal proceedings or in certain reports of crimes to the police.

Workplace Solutions: Fire Prevention 101

In preventing defamation suits stemming from harassment lawsuits, employers should never overlook the importance of maintaining a fire-proof anti-harassment policy. Should a harassment lawsuit arise, employers should ensure that representatives and supervisors exercise caution in making statements about current or former employees. If you have any questions or concerns, your friendly California Seyfarth firefighters are here to serve and protect.

Edited by Coby Turner

Seyfarth Synopsis: Private employers can face competing obligations when it comes to responding to employees’  expressive conduct. Employee rights may collide with employer obligations to maintain a safe and harassment-free work environment, not to mention the employer’s interest in maintaining productivity and avoiding adverse publicity. Here are some guiding principles.

“How’s work?” A common question, whether at a party, catching up with an old friend, or just as small talk. It is also a common topic of online conversation. It would be nice if work-related remarks were always positive, agreeable and civil, but, of course, they are not. The reality is that employees sometimes say offensive things about work, their employer, their co-workers, or a co-worker’s cherished political hero or ideals.

And what of the employee who attends a political rally—either as a protester or counter-protester—or does not attend, but merely posts or tweets an incendiary opinion about the event?

What is an employer’s recourse when such communications cross the line? Where is the line?

As a general rule, unless the employee is using company-owned equipment or systems, employers cannot police their employees’ expression. Various California statutes protect employees’ rights to engage in lawful, off-duty conduct (Lab. Code §§ 96, 98.6) and political activity (Lab. Code §§ 1102, 1103), to say nothing of the California constitutional right to privacy, which applies in both the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, the federal National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from chilling employee participation in concerted activity with respect to their terms and conditions of employment.

Generally, as long as controversial comments and ideas are lawfully expressed, do not implicate a protected class (such as race, religion, gender), do not name or implicate the employer, and remain out of the workplace, they are none of the employer’s business.

The trouble starts when a controversial comment is not lawfully expressed, implicates a protected class, implicates the employer, or has a deleterious effect in the workplace. Competing against the employee rights set out above are the employer’s duties to prevent and correct harassment in the workplace and to provide a safe workplace. Failure to do so can lead to hostile work environment or retaliation claims, regardless of whether the harassment comes from a supervisor or a co-worker.

Not all offensive remarks will be cause for concern: to get from “how’s work?” to a hostile work environment claim, an employee’s comments must relate to a protected status and be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter working conditions. But in todays’ highly charged political environment, many people look to their places of employment as the last bastion of civility and stability. Discussion of events, images, symbols, or social media memes concerning topics as varied as immigration, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the history of American slavery and its aftermath may, depending on the communication’s content and context, be freighted with racial or gender connotations.

For most people, perception is reality. Remarks or conduct that several years ago would not have raised an eyebrow may now lead to multiple disgruntled people in the HR office, seeking action. And while California employees are guaranteed privacy, the privacy right does not prevent an appropriate reaction from an employer in response to a public online posting, text message, or comment. As someone once said: “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”

There is no magic bullet to making sure your employees play nice. But there are several steps you can take to ensure that they know what will and will not be tolerated. You can set employee expectations by implementing or reminding them of your anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy, your code of conduct, your “zero tolerance” policy regarding violence, your social media policy, and your rules concerning use of company internet and other electronic communication systems. We recommend that employers articulate a strong business purpose to justify any occasions when they must intrude on an employee’s privacy, and never intrude more than is necessary to serve that business purpose.

Interpretation of the laws around employee workplace rights and the intersection with employer duties to comply with anti-harassment and OSHA laws are constantly evolving, particularly with the ever-increasing use of social media. To help stay current, don’t hesitate to contact your favorite Seyfarth attorney.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Social media information—pictures, status updates, location markers, “likes,” groups, and associated friends, all from the owner’s perspective and documented in real time—can be a  goldmine of information to defend employment lawsuits. Read on for thoughts on how to extract and refine this information, and what limits to observe in using it.

Social media and discovery is an area rife with potential drama: pictures of a plaintiff vacationing in Hawaii after he’s called in sick? Yes, please! How and should we access such juicy information?

Litigation-related discovery of social media content is generally permissible. The main problem is that—both in formal discovery and in other forms of fact-finding—there isn’t a complete picture on how far one can go to obtain it. Below are some tips to help employers stay in the friend-zone while using social media to their advantage in litigation.

Go Narrow! (At Least At First)

In a frequently cited case on the matter, Mailhoit v. Home Depot U.S.A. (C.D. Cal. 2012), the court debated how a defendant could use social media in litigation, and ultimately decided that there is a limited right to discover a party’s social media content. Mailhoit allowed an employer to make “particularized requests”—in that case all social media communications between the plaintiff and her current or former co-workers in any way referring to the lawsuit. But Mailhot said the employer was not entitled to look through the entirety of the plaintiff’s social media information in the hope of “concocting some inference about her state of mind,” and refused to permit other proposed, broader, discovery requests.

But even this limited discovery can be important: once relevance is shown, courts may be more likely to permit additional discovery. Mailhoit suggested that if social media posts are relevant, additional discovery may proceed.

At least one non-California court has already taken this step. In Crowe v. Marquette Transportation Company Gulf-Inland, LLC (E.D. La. 2015), the court ordered an employee to produce an unredacted copy of his entire Facebook page, even though the employee protested that he had deactivated his account. The employer was even entitled to analyze his Facebook messages, which potentially contained a lot of useful information! If a California court can be persuaded that social media communications in some way relate to claims or defenses in the litigation, then they, too, may yield to discovery.

Private vs. Public: Gimme, Gimme!

We know that in California, since 2013, we cannot force employees or job applicants to turn over social media passwords. The California legislation on this point reflects a public policy that recognizes our unique constitutional right of privacy.

But what about publicly available information? California courts agree that there can be no expectation of privacy in publicly posted information on social media websites. See Moreno v. Hanford Sentinel, Inc. (Cal. App. 2009).

This means if the privacy setting on an employee’s Facebook posts is “Public”(i.e., available to anyone on or off Facebook), then anything posted is fair game for discovery. The same goes for publicly available Twitter tweets, publicly available Instagram posts, publicly available LinkedIn info, MySpace page information, etc. Presumably, if someone publicly posts elsewhere (e.g., Reddit, 4Chan, personal blogs), with a link it to the poster’s identity, then those posts may also be accessed and used.

Save, Save, Save!

Social media, like life itself, is evanescent.  Publicly available, incredibly useful information can be here one day, gone the next. Do not rely on information staying up once it is up. To best preserve currently available information, screenshot the information, or print to .pdf. Then save and wait. It doesn’t get much better than seeing the face of a plaintiff when confronted with a photo he thought he had deleted. You know the one: featuring the plaintiff himself, bleary eyed and hoisting a beer, an hour before his scheduled work shift. Or the one showing him wearing stolen merchandise. Or the one showing him partying it up while supposedly suffering from “emotional distress.”

Fake-Friending and Professional Responsibility: Don’t Be a 🙁 

“Fake-friending” is when one creates a fake profile to add a person on Facebook or other social media with the aim of gaining full access to the person’s more limited profile. Rules of professional responsibility for lawyers discourage this practice—(the American Bar Association has recognized at least four areas of concern: (1) confidentiality, (2) truthfulness in statements to others, (3) responsibility regarding non-lawyer assistants, and (4) misconduct). Conducting covert research through fake-friending may also violate California Rules of Professional Conduct, such as Rule 2-100, which forbids “communication with a represented party.” Non-attorneys may be subject to similar ethical responsibilities.  So leave intentional fake-friending out of your litigation arsenal.

Nonetheless, it is not always clear what the limits of these rules mean in practice. For example, would it be OK to accept the help of a third party who has access to shared information (for example, the plaintiff’s co-worker, who has added the plaintiff as a friend online)?

The San Diego County Bar Association released an Opinion (2011-2), stating: represented “parties shouldn’t have ‘friends’ like that and no one – represented or not, party or non-party – should be misled into accepting such a friendship.” Specifically, the opinion states that if the motive is to obtain information about the litigation, then this conduct can violate Rule 2-100 and constitute deceptive conduct forbidden by the California Business and Professions Code.

Outside of California, other jurisdictions have found that it would be unethical even to ask a third person, whose name a hostile witness will not recognize, to obtain social media information, even if the person states only truthful information.

The Future of Social Media and Regulation: “It’s Complicated”

New apps, social media websites, and ways to share information emerge every day. Unfortunately, the law and public policy often lag behind advances in technology. In some states, we’re already seeing some peculiar stuff going on. In New York, courts have since 2013 held that some service via social media can satisfy due process. In one early case, Federal Trade Comm. v. PCCare247 Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 7, 2013), the court noted: “history teaches that, as technology advances and modes of communication progress, courts must be open to considering requests to authorize service via technological means of then-recent vintage, rather than dismissing them out of hand as novel.” New York courts have also indicated that social media may be considered an effective means of providing notice to potential class members in class actions. See Mark v. Gawker Media, LLC (S.D.N.Y. 2016).

Workplace Solutions

If you find yourself in a pickle—“to like or not to like?”, “to friend or not to friend?”, “to snoop or not to snoop?”—remember that a friendly neighborhood Seyfarth attorney is just a poke away.

Edited by Coby M. Turner.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Protecting trade secrets from employee theft requires more than using an NDA when onboarding employees. If businesses want to protect confidential information, they need a cradle-to-grave approach, reiterating employee obligations regularly, including during exit interviews. (Yes, you need to do exit interviews!)

Headline stories in intellectual property theft tend to involve foreign hackers engaged in high-tech attacks to pilfer vast troves of data stored by big businesses or government entities, such as those involving Russian government hackers or the Chinese military. The losses are staggering. In 2009, McAfee estimated that cybercrime cost worldwide economies $1 Trillion. That number was cited by (a then-youthful) President Obama in his first speech on cybersecurity. Since that time, attacks by professionals and nation states have remained at the forefront of both news reports and the public perception. Since then, hack attacks have remained at the forefront of both news reports and the public perception.

But despite the disproportionate attention given to high value, high-tech attacks by outsiders, many U.S. businesses recognize that threats from the inside are just as costly as revealed by a 2014 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. Nevertheless, “only 49%” of organizations surveyed had “a plan for responding to insider threats.”

Trade secrets are particularly susceptible to theft because they, by definition, consist of secret information with economic value. Company insiders often find that information too tempting to be leave behind when changing employers, or when seeking new employment. Therein lies the problem.

Trade secret theft by employees may not grab as many headlines as neo-Cold War espionage, but the data suggest that employees, not outsiders, pose the greatest threat of loss from trade secret theft. The good news is that a little proactivity by employers will go a long way toward keeping them out of the 49% who lack a plan to prevent leaks.

Of course, in California, obtaining protection is not all that simple. Non-compete agreements are, with very limited exceptions, a non-starter under Business and Professions Code § 16600, so you need special steps to keep your trade secret house in order. And because a California trade secret plaintiff (e.g., a former employer suing its former employee) likely must identify its trade secrets with reasonable particularity before commencing discovery, it pays to invest time on the front end to identify and inventory your trade secret information before litigation arises.

So, what can employers do?

Update Non-Disclosure Agreements to Comply With the DTSA, and See That Employees Know Why NDAs Are Important

Almost all employers (we hope) have confidential/non-disclosure and trade secret protection provisions in their employment agreements. But have these agreements been updated to comply with the recently enacted Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) and its important employee/whistleblower notification provisions? And what are employers doing to help ensure compliance with their agreements? Rolling out new agreements is relatively easy. Making sure they are effective takes some doing.

Remember, your organization will not even have trade secrets to protect unless it has made  “efforts reasonable under the circumstances” (under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act) or has taken “reasonable measures” (under the DTSA) to maintain the secrecy of the information it claims to be a trade secret. Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.1(d); 18 U.S.C. § 1839(3)(A).

Implement Computer Use and Social Media Agreements and Policies

Most trade secret theft occurs via electronic device. Make sure your company has computer use and access policies and agreements that:

  • Set forth that company computers, network, related devices, and information stored therein belong to the company;
  • Indicate that access to company computers and networks are password-protected, with access authorized only for work-related purposes;
  • Make use of data storage/access hierarchies, with the most valuable information being accessible on only a need-to-know basis, with security access redundancies (housed in a highly secure database that requires unique user credentials distinct from the log-in credentials the employee uses to access a computer workstation);
  • Identify which devices are allowed in the workplace—BYOD practices have become popular, but also present challenges in regulating information flow and return. If employees use their own devices to perform work for the company, make clear that the company data on those devices belong to the company;
  • Notify employees that the company reserves the right to inspect devices used for work to ensure that no company data exist on the devices upon termination of employment;
  • Define whether cloud storage may be used by employees, under what terms, and what happens when employment ends;
  • Define whether external storage devices (e.g., thumb drives) are allowed and under what terms; and
  • Identify whether and how employees may use social media associated with their work—trade secrets must never be publicly disclosed, but beware of any overreach that would suppress employee communications protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

Build a Culture of Confidentiality—Make Sure Employees Know What The Company Regards as Confidential and Then Remind Them Routinely

Employees need to understand what information your company considers confidential.  Educating employees on this subject should start at the beginning of employment, continue  throughout employment,  and recur at the end of employment. Tools that can help in this regard include:

  • Onboarding procedures to emphasize the importance of company confidential information;
  • Including in NDAs an express representation that the employee does not possess and will not use while in your employ confidential information belonging to any former employer or other third party;
  • Using yearly (or more frequent) brief interactive e-modules emphasizing the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of company information;
  • Requiring that the employee sit for an exit interview; and
  • Requiring that the employee certify in writing, during exit interviews, that they have returned all company information and property (the employee may provide property on the spot or make statements about what will be returned—you should inventory all such indicated property and information).

Properly Exiting Employees—Particularly for High Risk Employees—Matters!

Not all employees present the same risk of loss. Generally, the loftier an employee is in the corporate hierarchy the greater the threat that that employee will expose company confidential information. The following recommendations are for mid-to-high risk departing employees:

  • The person conducting the exit interview must be prepared—use a checklist;
  • “Preparedness” for higher-risk employees will include (1) identifying, before the exit interview, the trade secret and confidential information the employee routinely accessed and used during employment, (2) reviewing for unusual activity the departing employee’s computer and work activities (including card key facility access data, where available) in the days and weeks leading up to their exit, (3) using an exit certification as noted above, and (4) inquiring where the employee is going and what position the employee will hold;
  • Where initial investigation warrants, discreetly interview company-friendly co-workers of the departing employee to identify potentially suspicious conduct;
  • Immediately shut down the departing employee’s access to company computers, networks, and other data repositories (e.g., cloud or other off-site storage). Cutting off access to company computer and data may be warranted before exiting the employee, depending on the perceived risk of data theft;
  • Send a reminder-of-obligations letter to the now former employee, reciting ongoing obligations to the company and attaching, where useful, a copy of the NDA the employee has signed;
  • Consider notifying the new employer, but tread carefully here to avoid overstepping or providing a basis to be accused of interfering with the employment relationship between your former employee and the new employer; and
  • Depending on the threat level you perceive, consider having a departing employees’ emails preserved and their electronic devices forensically imaged.

With best practices in place, protecting your company’s trade secrets should be more like routine, but vigilant maintenance, than preparing to do cyber battle with foreign states. Organizations understandably focus on creating the next “big thing,” increasing sales, and building investor value, but slowing down enough to be purposeful in protecting intellectual property is a must.

Edited by Michael A. Wahlander.

iStock_000006895318_LargeWe all know that social media and privacy issues in the workplace can be a bone-chilling proposition.  Before you go snooping into your employees’ social media accounts to see whether it’s filled with tricks or tweets, please be sure to review our frightfully informative 2015-2016 Edition of the Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference.  Without it, one never knows what kind of legislative ghouls and goblins might come back to haunt you. Please click here to learn more.  It’s a scream!

HiResYou’re reading a blog post, and thus need no primer on the prevalence of social media. But you may not be aware of the pitfalls facing employers that use, monitor, or implement policies regarding social media.

Employers can face liability for a wide variety of social media-related practices. For example, if you thought employers generally could prohibit employees from picking fights online or that there isn’t anything wrong with an employer friending an applicant before extending a job offer … well, think again.

Big Brother The NLRB Is Watching

In recent years, the National Labor Relations Board has increasingly scrutinized social media employment policies to see if they would deter the rights of employees to engage in concerted activities, including the rights to discuss their terms and conditions of their employment.

We previously lamented the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes an acceptable social media policy in the jaundiced eyes of the NLRB. The good news is that the NLRB’s General Counsel has issued guidelines regarding social media policies.  The bad news is that the guidelines sometimes offer insufficient guidance, or guidance that the courts may not accept. Further, the views expressed in the guidelines are those of the General Counsel, and may or may not be accepted by the NLRB.

For example, the NLRB guidelines advise that the following seemingly innocuous rules are likely unlawful:

  • prohibiting employees from engaging in disrespectful, negative, inappropriate or rude conduct towards employers or management;
  • generally prohibiting employees from sending unwanted, offensive or inappropriate emails;
  • banning, across the board, picking fights online; and
  • requiring employees to get approval before creating a blog or discussion group.

The NLRB guidelines disapprove of such generally stated policies because they could have the effect of curbing protected activity.

In contrast, the NLRB explained that the following, more specific, rules would likely be lawful:

  • prohibiting employees from being disrespectful, negative or rude to customers;
  • prohibiting conduct that threatens, intimidates, coerces, or otherwise interferes with the job performance of fellow employees or visitors; and
  • requiring employees to get approval before creating an online forum that does not relate to wages, terms, and conditions of employment or other protected activity.

The NLRB guidelines suggest that these rules likely would be permissible because they are drafted with sufficient specificity to demonstrate that they won’t impede the right of employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment.

The main takeaway from the NLRB guidelines is that context is key. A rule that might come across as ambiguous (and unlawful) in isolation may take on a whole new meaning with carve outs or examples that demonstrate how the rule won’t prevent an employee from engaging in a protected activity.

Pandora’s Box of Potential Pitfalls

The NLRB is not the only policer of social media employment policies. California and a growing number of other states prohibit employers from (1) requiring job applicants to provide social media passwords, (2) requiring job applicants to “friend” employees, or (3) requiring applicants’ friends to disclose what the applicants posted online. [Keep an eye out for Part 2 of our Social Media article, with its link to Seyfarth’s Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference Guide.]

It remains true, of course, that California employers are not explicitly prohibited from viewing publicly available information. But just because it’s not unlawful doesn’t mean it’s advisable.

In addition to social media revealing trivial information like what someone just listened to on Spotify, social media can also reveal a host of personal information that employers cannot ask for during the hiring process (and may be better off not knowing). By viewing this information and then deciding not to hire an applicant, employers can inadvertently expose themselves to litigation risk. For example, if a rejected applicant’s Instagram or Facebook postings contain pregnancy-related pictures, or photographs of church-related functions, or show that the applicant has a disabled child or spouse, a potential employer might later find itself embroiled in a discrimination claim.

So while California has not (yet) forbidden you to check out your potential employee pool online, the potential problems caused by doing so may mean you might want to skip the Facebook stalking and stick with Candy Crush. (The uninitiated who find this reference obscure may wish to consult https://apps.facebook.com/candycrush.)

Workplace Solutions

Given the trove of personal information available online, the best practice is to avoid using social media during the hiring process. And it might seem harmless to prevent an employee from being rude to a supervisor on Twitter, or to look up a potential employee on your Facebook app, in this case what you inadvertently know might hurt you. So steer clear if you can—knowing how many Grumpy Cat memes an applicant or employee posted is not worth it!

If you have any questions regarding your workplace’s social media policies or practices, please contact the author, or another Seyfarth attorney.

In November, Democrats won a supermajority in the California Legislature (55 seats in the Assembly and 27 in the Senate). Democrats now have the votes to pass measures requiring a two-thirds majority vote, without any help from that pesky other political party.  Even more, they then need only to pass the bill to Democrat Governor Jerry Brown for his seal of approval.  Will the Dems use this newfound power to make California even more peculiar on the labor and employment front?  Will Brown rubber stamp what the Dems put on his desk, or continue his reputation of marching to his own drummer? 

It’s still quite early in the 2013-14 Legislative Session – a time when many of the bills introduced are merely “spot” holders for later substantive amendments. Nonetheless, while it is still too early to make any concrete predictions, we can make some educated guesses about what will emerge on the labor and employment front this year:

Prediction #1: More Protected Statuses

The unemployed:  Governor Brown vetoed legislation last year that would have made unemployed a protected status under FEHA, stating that “[t]his measure seeks to prevent discrimination against the unemployed based on their job status by prohibiting employers from stating in employment ads that applicants must be employed.  Unfortunately, as this measure went through the legislative process it was changed in a way that could lead to unnecessary confusion.”  The bill’s author has left the Legislature. If a new bill now goes through the process without such “confusion,” that bill may meet the Governor’s approval.  If so, it would not be the first.  Oregon recently enacted similar protections, as did the District of Columbia and New Jersey.  There was also a similar bill pending on the federal level that died in Committee. 

The homeless:  Assembly Member Ammiano has introduced AB-5, dubbed the “Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act” that would prohibit discrimination under the Unruh Act and Fair Employment and Housing Act on the basis of “housing status,” defined as “the status of having or not having a fixed or regular residence, including the status of living on the streets, in a vehicle, or in a homeless shelter, or similar temporary residence or elsewhere in the public domain.”  The bill is currently before the Assembly Committee on the Judiciary.

Potential consequences of either of the above becoming law?  Employers will face additional challenges in ensuring that recruiters, human resources personnel, interviewers, and management employees are trained to be aware, navigate, and comply with these requirements.  Continue Reading What New Peculiarities California’s Democratic Supermajority May Have in Store for Employers In 2013