Tag Archives: social media policy

Can Employers Ever Monitor Employees' Personal Social Media?

Yes, but be careful! There is no denying that the use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn has exploded. The explosion includes both personal and business use of social media. It also includes use that is beneficial to employers and use that can be very damaging. Unfortunately, the influx of employment lawsuits that have followed the explosion have had limited practical value in guiding employees and employers on the permissible use and oversight of social media in the workplace. While many questions remain, the California State Legislature's recent enactment regulating employer use of social media does provide some guidance.

California Labor Code section 980 was enacted to prevent employers from (1) requesting an employee disclose usernames or passwords for personal social media accounts; (2) requiring an employee to access his or her personal social media in the presence of the employer; or (3) requiring an employee to divulge any personal social media to the employer. Applicants are protected in the same way as employees. The new statute, coupled with existing privacy laws, limits what employers may monitor when it comes to the personal social media of employees and applicants.

Definition Of Social Media
In what appears to be an effort to account for the ever increasing development of new social media, the new statute broadly defines social media as an “electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, e-mail, online services or accounts, or internet web site profiles or locations.”

Prohibitions On Employers Monitoring Social Media
Employers may not require, or even request, that an employee or applicant:

  • Disclose a username or password for the purpose of gaining access to the employee or applicant's personal social media;
  • Access their personal social media in the employer's presence; or
  • Divulge any personal social media.

Employers are also prohibited from retaliating or threatening to retaliate against an employee or applicant who refuses to comply with a request or demand that violates the statute.

Despite the statute's broad definition of social media and its restrictive prohibitions on employers, it does provide some exceptions under which employers may request and gain access to employees' personal social media. For each exception, however, pitfalls exist. Employers need to know them in order to avoid costly mistakes.

Accessing Social Media As Part Of An Investigation
The statute does not affect an employer's existing rights to obtain personal social media “reasonably believed to be relevant” to an investigation of employee misconduct. Under this exception, the employer may only access the employee's personal social media under the condition that it is used strictly for purposes of the investigation or a related proceeding. While the statute does not define what “reasonably believed to be relevant” means, California Courts evaluate employee privacy concerns utilizing a balancing test, weighing the employee's reasonable expectation of privacy against the employer's legitimate business needs for accessing the information. It is wise for employers to evaluate each instance carefully before requesting an employee to divulge his or her personal social media under this exception.

Employer-Issued Electronic Devices
The statute does not preclude an employer from requiring an employee to disclose a username and password for the purpose of accessing an employer-issued electronic device such as a computer, smartphone or e-mail account. Employers should exercise caution, however, before digging through an employee's use of personal social media on the employer-issued device.

It is a violation of the federal Stored Communications Act to access a restricted or password protected site without the owner's consent. So, while it is permissible for an employer to require an employee to provide his or her password for access to the employer-issued device, an employer may be violating the law by accessing social media information on the device. For instance, having the IT department look up the employee's Facebook password stored on the employer-issued device in order to gain access the employee's personal Facebook page.

Adverse Action Against Employees
The statute does not prohibit an employer from terminating or taking adverse action against an employee or applicant if otherwise permitted by law. For instance, an employer may discipline an employee for violating company policy and using personal social media during work time. Nor does the statute specifically prohibit employers from accessing publicly available social media. This means that employers may view the personal social media of its employees that is available to the general public on the internet, such as blogs and other websites that do not restrict user access.

But, before taking any adverse action against an employee based upon the content of his or her personal social media, employers must keep in mind that California law prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee based upon the employee's lawful conduct occurring away from the employer's premises during non-work hours. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board has held that employees may use social media to voice concerns over working conditions. While an employee complaining about working conditions or an issue with a manager on his or her Facebook page may reflect negatively upon the organization, the employee's use of social media to criticize working conditions may qualify as protected speech for which an employee cannot be lawfully disciplined.

What Is An Employer To Do?
First, be patient. The law develops at a snail's pace compared to the development of new technology and cultural trends. More guidance will come. In the meantime, employers should approach social media issues with careful consideration and planning. This should start with the development of a written social media policy, and not a sample or template policy. The policy needs to be specifically tailored to the employer and should discusses the importance of social media, the impact that social media has on the workplace, and how employee's use of social media reflects upon the organization. The policy should also define the permitted use of technology owned by the organization and employee's expectations of privacy or lack thereof.

If an employer elects to have a policy restricting personal social media use during work hours, it should ensure that the policy is applied even-handedly to avoid claims of discrimination. Employers should also consider the pros, cons and legal issues that relate to restrictions on supervisors' social media interaction with subordinates. For most organizations, it would be advisable to inform employees that they are not required to interact with supervisors on personal social media and will not be retaliated against for refusing to interact with supervisors.

A carefully planned and well written social media policy that outlines the organization's goals and expectations of employees' use of personal social media can help ensure compliance with the new rules and prevent costly disputes with employees.

Flo Won't Handle Your File: Claims in the Social Media Age

Viral phenomena on the Internet more frequently concern “Cats that Look like Hitler” or racy photos of Prince Harry cavorting in Las Vegas.

Insurance claims rarely go viral on social media, but that changed recently with a controversial underinsured motorist claim involving Progressive Insurance Company. You can find background on the case here.

The sad facts here are straightforward. Progressive Insurance Company policyholder Katie Fisher died in a 2010 automobile crash in Maryland. Allegedly, the other driver ran a red light, though there was a dispute as to who had the green light and the right-of-way. The driver that struck Katie’s vehicle was under-insured. The good news: Katie had bought underinsured motorist coverage (UIM).

The bad news: to collect, Katie’s family had to sue the other driver for negligence to force Progressive to pay. However, when the family sued the other driver, Progressive’s attorneys associated with the other driver’s attorneys to defend the liability claim. As a result, the deceased’s brother went viral in social media rounds, complaining that Progressive used premium dollars to defend his sister’s killer in court. That makes for an arresting headline.

This claim illustrates the importance of an insurance company being attuned to social media and having a social media policy. Of course, here Progressive did not stick its head in the sand. It did not ignore the social media buzz surrounding its handling of the case. Apparently, it responded but responded in a way perceived as tone-deaf.

Progressive In A Lose-Lose Situation?
Maybe Progressive Insurance Company was in a no-win situation. If it ignored the social media banter about its stance, consumers would accuse it of insensitivity. It entered the dialogue to justify its actions. In so doing, people accused it of being tone-deaf to consumer sensitivities. I don’t know what response Progressive could have launched on social media that would have satisfied its critics.

This vignette underscores how little people understand what they buy when purchasing underinsured motorist coverage. Buying underinsured motorist coverage essentially risks putting you at odds with your own insurance company. In such a claim, your own insurance company is incentivized to show that you in fact were at fault for the accident and/or that your injuries were not the result of the negligence of an underinsured driver. People assume that the insurance company to whom they paid their premiums will always be on their side. Typically, this is the case. Typically, this is the alignment of interests.

In underinsured motorist coverage and claims, however, “typical” doesn’t necessarily apply. Here, interests are aligned differently. Just because you pay your insurance company for the coverage doesn’t mean that — in a claim involving an underinsured adverse driver — your insurance company is going to act all soft and fuzzy.

Of course, insurance companies would not effectively market and sell underinsured motorist coverage if they made this reality explicit and spotlighted it in the sales process. People don’t think it through. Nobody really believes deep down they will be hurt due to the fault of an underinsured driver. If they pay for the coverage, perhaps they pay for it begrudgingly at best.

Policyholder Ignorance About Underinsured Motorist Coverage
So, those who say “Shame on Progressive” for its stance adverse to its own policyholder could add, “Shame on the policyholder” for not realizing the dynamics in underinsured motorist claims. Of course, it sounds callous to be lecturing a family on the dynamics of claims-handling when they have lost their daughter in a fatal car accident.

Further, there was a reasonable question of fact as to who had the right-of-way. Should Progressive and its adjusters have ignored evidence that the deceased may have been at fault in order to pay the claim? It’s difficult to fault Progressive’s adjusters here, as tempting as it may be to do so. There was a legitimate dispute as to who had the right-of-way and who ran the red light. Was Progressive wrong for exercising its legal right to seek a judicial determination of liability?

Personally, I don’t think so.

Nevertheless, insurance companies now face not just bad faith risks over how their claim department handles or mishandles an automobile loss. They also face reputational risks if disgruntled consumers take to Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Tumblr, etc. to air their gripes.

Internet Megaphones
The Internet and social media provides a bully pulpit and cyberspace megaphone for anyone who has a beef, whether that complaint is justified or specious. On the other hand, since everyone now has an electronic megaphone via the Internet, World Wide Web and social media, the cacophony of complaints can create a “white noise” effect that makes any one complaint difficult to stand out. This complaint did stand out, though, and got widespread media play.

While it is tempting to say “No comment” or “We won’t try our case in the media,” insurance companies — like other businesses — cannot take an ostrich approach and stick their heads in the proverbial sand.

The takeaways and lessons from this go beyond Progressive Insurance Company. Katie Fisher’s case illustrates that in the 21st century:

  • insurance companies must have social media policies,
  • they must monitor social media, and
  • they must be able to articulate a concise yet compelling message to an often skeptical audience.

It’s not enough to handle the claim conscientiously.

It’s not enough to handle it in accord with the policy conditions.

It’s not enough to comply with state insurance department regulations.

It’s not enough to believe that you acted in good faith.

If you have an under-insured motorist claim, you must realize that your adjuster will not be perky Flo from the TV commercials.

Insurers Need Social Media Strategy
This case study also spotlights the need for insurance companies to have a refined social media strategy. That goes beyond grappling with questions like, “Should we be on Facebook or Twitter?” or, “Should we have a blog?”

Sorry — those questions are so 2010. That no longer cuts it as a coherent social media strategy.

It’s no longer enough to have a digital footprint in the social media world. The content of what companies put out on social media is vital, scrutinized, and should promote their brand. Content is king.

Moreover, insurance companies must have institutionalized disciplines to monitor what is being said about them on social media so they can respond quickly and persuasively. The consumer conversation about your service and policies is going on — with you or without you. It is best that it goes on with you. It’s best that you have an opportunity to be aware of customer service firestorms brewing so that you have the opportunity to squelch them, address them and nip them in the bud.

You may have to justify your steps in the court of public opinion through social media or suffer the consequences of a public relations black eye if you hunker down and go incommunicado.

As this case study shows, adjusters are sometimes damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Pay the claim in the face of conflicting evidence, and be second-guessed for poor decision-making by higher-ups. Contest the claim and align yourself with the other driver’s insurance company, and you get criticized in the court of public opinion for callousness.

No one promised adjusters a rose garden and they certainly don’t get to operate in one in the age of viral posts and social media!