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Think before you post: Here’s the new federal-workforce guidance on social media

(Reuters photo)

Federal employees would be wise to ponder before posting and to think through their tweeting in order to avoid running afoul of government ethics policies, according to newly released guidance from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

Rules called the Standards of Conduct apply to social media in areas such as fundraising, seeking outside employment, use of an employee’s title and more, the office said.

OGE said it was responding to increasing numbers of questions about how longstanding ethics policies apply in that quickly evolving realm.

“The Standards of Conduct do not prohibit executive branch employees from establishing and maintaining personal social media accounts. As in any other context, however, employees must ensure that their social media activities comply with the Standards of Conduct and other applicable laws, including agency supplemental regulations and agency-specific policies,” the agency said.

The guidance, posted this week, is designed primarily for agency ethics offices, which federal employees can consult with questions about the rules. Violations can lead to disciplinary actions, up to firing.

One issue commonly arising, the guidance says, involves use of job titles on personal social media accounts. The rules generally require that employees avoid using their titles or positions in a way that would create an appearance that the government “sanctions or endorses their activities or those of another.”

There would be no violation if an employee merely includes his or her title or position in an area of the account for biographical information, OGE said.

However, a violation might occur if an employee “refers to his or her connection to the government as support for the employee’s statements.”

Additionally, a violation could occur if an employee “prominently features his or her agency’s name, seal, uniform or similar items on the employee’s social media account or in connection with specific social media activities,” among other situations.

Similarly, when recommending or endorsing another person, the employee’s title may appear in the biographical section of the employee’s account. But the employee must not “affirmatively choose to include a reference to the employee’s title, position, or employer in a recommendation.”

Fine distinctions can arise in some areas. For example, it is generally okay to send out through social media fundraising messages for nonprofit charitable organizations, the guidance says, but an employee may not reply to a response about it from a subordinate or from certain other sources.

And while receiving an unsolicited message about an employment opportunity would not trigger disclosure and recusal requirements that apply to some employees, responding to it with “anything other than a rejection” would.

Standard rules against disclosing nonpublic information also apply to social media, OGE added, and use during working hours could violate rules against misuse of government time and equipment—although limited amounts may be allowed under agency policies permitting some personal use of government resources.

The Office of Special Counsel, which enforces Hatch Act partisan political activities restrictions on federal employees, similarly has posted information on how that law applies to social media.

It says, for example, that there is no violation of the ban on soliciting donations for parties or partisan candidates if a social media “friend” of a federal employee posts a link to the contribution page of a partisan candidate on the employee’s page. However, the employee should not “like,” “share,” or “retweet” the solicitation, “or respond in any way that would tend to encourage other readers to donate,” it said.