Ethics, law, and social media in the workplace

Facebook and Twitter at the office raise tricky questions. Three legal experts weigh in.

Chris MacDonald 0
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(Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty)

Yesterday (Nov. 6) as part of the Business Ethics Speakers Series I host, we held a panel discussion on “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Workplace Social Media.” It’s a topic many organizations are thinking about these days, and it raises a lot of tricky questions. How much control should an organization try to exert over employees use of Twitter at work? When two employees kvetch about their employer on Facebook, is that a private or a public conversation? Is it OK for an employer to gain access to a potential employee’s Facebook profile in order to engage in screening?

For the panel, I invited three of the most thoughtful people I know on the topic. All happened to be lawyers, but with very different perspectives. And all of them were interested not just to talk about the legal standards that apply to social media in the workplace, but also about the ethical principles that ought to underpin such standards.

Mark Crestohl, who chaired the panel, is assistant vice president for Global HR Regulatory Policies at TD Bank. In his comments, Mark suggested that what is most important for employers is to explain to their employees what it expects of them when they use social media. Crestohl explained that at TD they make clear to employees that they must adhere to the bank’s usage guidelines when any one or more of three situations arise: when the employee uses equipment (e.g., a corporate smartphone) provided by the employer; when they use network access provided by the employer; or when they are discussing topics related to TD or the financial services industry.

Panelist Dan Michaluk is a partner at Hicks Morley, Canada’s largest HR law firm. He said his advice to corporate clients is that they need to have a social media policy that is “risk-based and culture-tuned.” In other words, cookie-cutter policies just won’t do. He also said that clear internal guidelines are important, and that guidelines and policies need to be enforced consistently. But he also warns clients to think carefully before engaging on the ‘hard cases,’ those that test the line between private activity and activity that poses a significant risk to an employer interest.

Finally, Avner Levin is a colleague of mine at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and Director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute. For Avner, the key is to keep having a rich conversation about the issues social media raise. He pointed out that we tend to strive to behave online in ways that mimic the standards we have developed offline. But online we also seek to present different aspects of our identity to different audiences—our employer, colleagues, family, or friends—in the same manner that we do in the real world. His plea was that we do our best to make sure our workplace policies respect those individual needs and desires.

But that just hints at the rich discussion that went on. You can watch the event webcast in its entirety by clicking here: Ethical and Legal Aspects of Workplace Social Media.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.

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