Imagine for a moment that you are a major U.S. airline carrier. You discover that one of your flight attendants has posted mildly suggestive photos of herself aboard one of your airplanes on her blog, Queen of Sky: Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant. Out of concern for the company’s reputation, you terminate the flight attendant’s employment. To your surprise, you then receive notice that you are being sued for sexual discrimination because you did not treat male employees in a similar manner. Such was the case with Delta Airlines and former flight attendant Ellen Simonetti (for a quick blurb, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Simonetti).
The Simonetti case highlights the pitfalls that can arise when an employer’s interest collides with an employee’s use of electronic communications. Such circumstances are becoming more and more common with the increasing use of electronic communications in the workplace. Consider Facebook - it has over 300 million users, 50% of which access the website on any given day. That ends up being around eight billion minutes on Facebook every day. Chances are, if you have employees, at least some of them are on Facebook—and if they have a computer at work, they may be accessing Facebook on your dime.
► Most employers are aware of the more obvious risks that come with employees’ use of electronic communications such as social networking websites. These include decreased productivity, confidentiality breaches, and damage to the company’s reputation. What many employers may not realize, however, is that they are opening themselves up to a broad array of possible lawsuits, including libel and defamation claims, trade disparagement, copyright infringement, harassment, discrimination, retaliation, as well as federal and state labor laws just to name a few. A good electronic communications policy is therefore essential to protect a company’s interests.
► The first thing to keep in mind in crafting such a policy is that these policies are never “one size fits all.” Each workplace has unique characteristics that require special consideration. That being said, there are some general principles that would likely serve most employers well. First, make it clear—crystal clear—that all computers, telephone systems (including cell phones and BlackBerries™), and messages created, sent, or received are and remain the property of the company. Second, restrict employees’ use of these devices to business-related purposes. Third, reserve the right to monitor employees’ use of these devices. Fourth, make it clear from the outset that employees do not have an expectation of privacy when using company-owned devices.
► There are also other considerations an employer should keep in mind in maintaining its electronic communications policy. Remind employees often of the policy. Many employers simply include their electronic communications policy in a new-hire’s welcome packet and never mention it again. Frequent reminders will help avoid a litany of problems. It is also important to enforce the electronic communications policy consistently. An employer is almost certain to draw a lawsuit if it enforces its policy as to one employee and lets another get away with policy violations. Lastly, remind employees that all of the employer’s policies—not just ones involving electronic communications—apply to online activity.
Given the relatively low investment of resources to create a customized corporate electronic communications policy, there simply is no excuse for not having one. The policy will help to safeguard your company’s financial resources and your corporate brand image, while educating and directing the electronic (work-related and personal) activities of your employees.