Imagine an employee with a pool and spa store had a particularly rough day. He or she goes home and logs onto the Internet — it could be to update a Facebook page, or perhaps write a new blog entry.

Whatever the venue, the employee has just posted a permanent memo about that work experience for the entire world to see. And the company involved is now front and center.

“These days there are so many ways an irate customer or an unhappy employee can tee off on you electronically,” says Dave McKibben, retail and spa division manager at Patio Pools and Spas, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder based in Tucson, Ariz.

As a business owner, how can you be sure your employees aren’t taking you to task when they clock out? And what should be the approach if you do learn — through your own investigation or, worse yet, from a customer — that one of your workers is writing something that reflects poorly on your company?

The virtual reality

With more than 100 million users in the U.S. alone, Facebook is a household name. And with it has come problems.

Last year, a former high school teacher in Georgia sued the school district after she was allegedly forced to resign over photos and remarks on her Facebook page. Her attorney has claimed the incident violated state labor law.

Likewise, dozens of employees across the country have been terminated over the content on their blogs. It may include updates on their personal lives, news or gossip about their workplace, or even the latest movie or TV show.

Take the case of Ellen Simonetti, a former employee of Delta Airlines who was fired in late 2004 over pictures and writings she posted to her blog, “Queen of Sky: Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant.”

That same year reporter Rachel Mosteller, blogging under the pseudonym “Sarcastic Journalist,” was fired the day after she wrote, among other things, “I really hate my place of employment…”

While not always this blunt, anything an employer deems inappropriate or offensive has become grounds for discipline or dismissal.

And don’t forget Twitter, which allows users to broadcast whatever they like to whomever wishes to know in 140 characters or less.

In fact, last year more than 25 percent of bosses reported firing workers over e-mail-related violations, according to the 2009 Electronic Business Communication Policies & Procedures Survey conducted by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute. Another 26 percent said they had terminated employees for abusing their companies’ Internet policies.

“The bottom line is employees need to use good judgment,” says Dr. Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of BNI, a business networking organization based in Upland, Calif. “What they say or post is going to impact how people view them and the company. It’s definitely going to reflect on the business.”

For Debra Smith, that isn’t a problem. The co-owner of Pulliam Pools in Ft. Worth, Texas, says most of her employees have been with the company for so long, “they all want Pulliam to look good anyway.”

It’s a similar outlook at Pools Plus, a four-store retail operation based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Though it does include 25 employees across multiple locations, store manager Charlie Shehorn says it’s still a tight-knit outfit.

“We’ve never had an issue with it as far as I know,” Shehorn says. “On Facebook, I’m friends with a lot of our employees, and I’ve never seen anything on there that would concern me. And we’re a family-owned company — a number of our employees have been with us for many years. So there’s a lot of loyalty.

“If this was a bigger company though, it would be something to think about,” he adds. “It definitely would be an issue.”

Addressing the issue

Cal Boothby conducts background checks on all job candidates. But those investigations don’t extend to the online world: “It would never pick up Facebook,” says the owner of Redlands Pool & Spa Center in Redlands, Calif.

But recently, Boothby has contemplated revisions to his employment contract covering his workers’ electronic communications.

“We have a confidentiality agreement that all employees sign that basically says our business is our business,” he says. “So I suppose we would make it part of that. I think we would just write it in — that certain comments on Facebook, Twitter and those types of things are not permitted.”

He’s quick to add, however, that if problems did arise, “all you can really do is sit down and talk to them. That’s what you get in a small company. It’s pretty much like family.”

According to both Internet and legal experts, Boothby’s approach is a sound one. In cases where an employee’s opinion may be questionable, the consensus seems to be toward a measured response.

“You don’t want to hammer them, because then they will definitely get defensive,” Misner says. “I’m more in the position of educating them. Coaching and guiding them along is better than threatening them.”

In fact, Misner himself enters the names of prospective new hires into search engines like Google to see what comes up. And business owners throughout the country report shying away from job seekers whose online contributions may be deemed worrisome.

But for current employees, it often calls for a subtler touch: “Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way,” Misner says. “And according to the laws in most states, employees have a certain right to privacy. I don’t think you can really restrict them, so I’d try not to say things I can’t enforce.”

While nearly all businesses do carry some version of an employee handbook, the vast majority don’t address their employees’ online activities. Fewer contain policies governing what is written during non-business hours.

However, it may be time to re-consider.

“It’s generally up to the company to define the guidelines for what employees are and aren’t allowed to post,” says Mirna Bard, a social media coach based in Costa Mesa, Calif. “If they’re going to list or mention the company they work for, they need to know they’re still representing you.

“So it should definitely be part of the employee handbook from now on,” she adds.

As usual, location matters — activity outside the workplace is protected by some state laws, but again, to varying degrees. An individual who blogs about politics in California, for example, is generally protected from interference by his or her employer. Other states, like Connecticut, also prohibit discrimination stemming from political or what’s known as “expressive activity,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal guide on labor law and blogging.

Establishing basic policies is a good first step, says Austin Lilling, an employee benefits lawyer based in New York City.

“In terms of a business, there are core value statements and general policy statements,” he says. “And at the end of the day you have to set the record, because you don’t want to wind up getting sued. So taking precautions in policy statements and handbooks is probably the best way to approach it.”

And while his employees know to be careful about what they write, Shehorn also understands the implications of a new age.

“The fact is that most employee handbooks were written 15 or 20 years ago,” he says, “so it’s probably something we’ll have to update at some point in the future.”


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