Spotlight falls on social media policies

23 January 2013

NEW YORK: Many major brand owners have come under official scrutiny regarding their formal policies governing social media use, with Costco, General Motors and Target just some examples of this trend.

The National Labor Relations Board, a government body dealing with unfair practices in employer–employee relations, has recommended several sizeable firms amend their regulations in this area.

More specifically, it suggested that Target and Costco, the retailers, and General Motors, the car maker, adjust policies in this area so staff are able discuss topics of legitimate concern.

"Many view social media as the new water cooler," Mark G Pearce, chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, told the New York Times. "All we're doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology."

In one example of the Board's activity, it stated that General Motors' official stipulation that "offensive, demeaning, abusive or inappropriate remarks are as out of place online as they are offline" was unlawful.

"This provision proscribes a broad spectrum of communications that would include protected criticisms of the employer's labor policies or treatment of employees," the Board said.

A challenge was also made to Costco's statement that online posts which "damage the company, defame any individual or damage any person's reputation" might lead to "termination of employment".

In response, the NLRB argued this overly broad rule about "damaging" the company could unfairly "inhibit employees" when it came to talking about valid topics, again citing complaints over staff treatment.

Elsewhere, DISH, the satellite TV group, was criticised for an "unlawful prohibition on talking to government agencies", as was Target for its definition of "confidential information".

Walmart, the world's biggest retailer, actively consulted with the Board when revising its social media rules, which prohibit posts like "discriminatory remarks, harassment and threats of violence or similar inappropriate or unlawful conduct."

However, Randel K Johnson, senior vice president for labor policy at the United States Chamber of Commerce, voiced concerns that the Board's output was proving more harmful than helpful

"The board is using new legal theories to expand its power in the workplace," he said. "It's causing concern and confusion."

Data sourced from New York Time; additional content by Warc staff