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Social media blurs line between work and personal time


Retailers are finding that, thanks to our infinitely connected digital culture, the line between work and personal time is increasingly blurred. In fact, according to human-resources compliance and corporate training provider emTRAiN, whether we like it or not employees are never really “off the clock.”

“This ‘always-on’ factor renders employees’ personal exploits on the likes of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube professionally damaging -- to both the employee and their employer,” said employment law expert and Sacramento, Calif.-based emTRAiN CEO/founder Janine Yancey.

Yancey cited several recent cases of seemingly harmless pranks, off-handed comments and personal observations coming back to bite the person responsible -- and his or her employer. For example:

  •  Last fall, an Australian forklift driver was not only fired, but prosecuted and sentenced to 50 hours of community service and other penalties for a YouTube video that shows him performing wheelies, burnouts and crashing into a pile of concrete pipes on a forklift at his workplace.

  • In January, just hours before his presentation to employees at FedEx, a public relations executive at Ketchum New York posted disparaging comments on Twitter about the city of Memphis -- FedEx’s hometown -- that embarrassed him, his firm and nearly cost them the account.

  • This spring, a gate worker at the Philadelphia Eagle’s stadium was fired for expressing his opinion about the departure of safety Brian Dawkins for the Denver Broncos on his personal Facebook page.

  • Then, of course, there is the well-publicized YouTube video of Domino’s Pizza workers supposedly mocking unsanitary food preparation that netted the two felony charges and cost the company untold losses in reputation and sales.

“The risk of employees’ use of social media can have far-reaching consequences,” said Yancey. “Most importantly, the exposure of safety and other regulatory violations can not only result in injuries (or worse), but it can also result in hefty fines, legal action or other sanctions by regulatory agencies.”

Employees’ online comments about workplace projects or internal procedures -- either good or bad -- can reveal competitive secrets or violate client confidentiality, even without direct mention of the company or the client. Given the viral nature of such episodes, the organization often faces significant damage to its national or international reputation, in addition to any direct loss of clientele.

Yancey suggests that, as always, the best defense against this situation is a good offense. “Don’t wait until the video of store employees posing in lewd positions with mannequins hits YouTube,” she said, recommending that employers take the following preemptive steps:

  • Set a social-media policy and be prepared to enforce it. With a well-documented policy in place, it’s much easier to take authoritative disciplinary action without the risk of lawsuits or other unlawful termination claims. Clearly spell out the consequences of social-media infractions so that employees are aware of the penalties.

  • Train employees on the social-media policy and what it means to both them and the company. Some part-time and other “transitional” employees (those working while attending school or seeking a better job), who may be less invested in the company and its long-term success, may not realize the impact their impulsive actions or flippant comments may have on the company. Frankly, some simply won’t care. Others may not understand the truly public nature of their words or images.

The bottom line is that all employees must understand that virtually everything they post online is public information accessible by anyone, said Yancey. “It’s important to emphasize that maintaining professionalism, even in the personal context of social-media use, is important for them and the company. After all, if they berate your company and get fired for it, who else will hire them with that reputation?”

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