How to Deal

A Status Update on a Networking Site Becomes a Cause for Concern

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 27, 2009; 12:00 AM

This may be a case of technology moving too fast for HR rules to keep up. It's come to my attention that one employee made what was perceived as a threat against another employee in his Facebook status update. I did not see the actual text, but whatever was written made the employee who brought it to my attention feel anxious. I'm at a loss. I don't even know what the parameters are here. Obviously, bad judgment on the part of the poster to write something like that in a semi-public forum where others might see it, but other than reminding the poster of that, what can/should I do? Again, I didn't see it and the person who brought it to my attention did not document it. The poster has a history of not getting along with coworkers.

Follow the same approach that you would take if an employee reported an off-premises threat (oral or written) from a coworker. Ask the employee who felt threatened to produce some documentation of the incident. A print out of the ostensibly threatening statement would be ideal. If that is not available, then ask him or her to recollect the statement as accurately as possible.

You will then be in a better position to gauge whether you must take measures to address the behavior. It is possible that the employee who raised the issue is being overly sensitive or misinterpreting the message. I suspect, however, that there is some reasonable basis for this employee's concerns. Since the alleged writer of the message has a history of strained workplace relationships, it would not be surprising to find that he or she is unable to get along with co-workers off-premises, either.

If the alleged threats were made from an office computer or during work hours, you might feel more confident in addressing the situation. However, I understand why you might hesitate to act upon conversations that your employees have off-premises on their own time. Criminal acts aside, it feels intuitively wrong to hold people accountable at work for the things that they do and say in private. This is precisely why the laws of about 20 per cent of states protect employees from discipline for certain types of legal, off-duty conduct. These are typically known as "lifestyle laws," and their protections usually extend to the consumption of "lawful products" such as tobacco and alcohol. Some states afford broader protection, with an exception for conduct that is reasonably related to the workplace. There is no state or federal law protecting employees from discipline for behaviors that, although technically legal, could inflict serious damage on the workplace. This includes conduct that is disloyal to the organization (e.g., divulging confidential corporate information or disparaging its products) and its employees (e.g., harassment or making threats).

To the extent that it affects your workplace, what happens off-premises between your employees is absolutely your business. You are not being overly intrusive by requiring that your employees treat one another with professional courtesy both on and off the clock. Virtual interactions on social networking sites fall squarely within this principle. In fact, I would venture to say that the interactions of your employees online should receive closer scrutiny than their real-world communications. After all, these communications are often posted in a large forum for a broad range of people to see. Their potential for damage to people and institutions is therefore enhanced.

If you have not done so already, you should consider adding language to your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies concerning the importance of appropriate off-premises conduct, including social networking sites. Like an increasing number of organizations, you should also consider adopting a blogging and/or social networking policy that clearly delineates guidelines for responsible participation.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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