Q: What concerns should I have about employee privacy and social media?

A: If the reputation of your business can be hurt by inappropriate behavior of employees, then you probably worry about what might be going on off duty on their social media accounts. While it might seem essential to know and limit what employees can do when not at work, there are legal and ethical boundaries to consider.

From a legal perspective, employers are generally not allowed to have social media policies that restrict employees’ ability to engage in activities that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) considers to be “protected concerted activity.” For example, rules banning critical remarks about the company or working conditions are generally not permissible. However, requiring employees to refrain from making disparaging statements about co-workers or share information about clients is presumptively OK. It is important to stay up to date on guidance that the NLRB issues on a regular basis because recommendations might change.

Aside from legal restrictions that limit what employers can do, there are important limits on what employers should do.

After many publicized cases of privacy breaches on various social media platforms and the public outcry that followed, privacy is coming into focus for many individuals. While previous research has indicated that employees generally are not aware of the limited extent of their privacy when they are at work, this might be changing.

In addition, widely shared stories about employees being terminated for controversial social media posts when off duty are stark reminders that the boundaries between work and private life are blurring.

So how can employers find the right balance? Privacy is important. On the other hand, in our hyper-transparent society, the unbounded exercise of those freedoms can have real and significant repercussions for a business. Key principles in navigating this tension and finding the right balance are transparency, dialogue and education. Allowing input from employees can go a long way to secure compliance. If employees understand what is at stake, they are more likely to support restrictions that protect the organization.


Katherina Pattit is an associate professor of ethics and business law at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.