Setting boundaries for social networking in the workplace

Oct. 17, 2010 | by Carolyn Richmond

With each passing day, social networking becomes further ingrained in our personal and work lives. The benefits of social networking in the workplace can be significant as it brings together distant locations, serves as a cost efficient recruiting and marketing tool, and provides access to vast amounts of information and people. Unfortunately, the dangers of social networking can also be equally daunting. Information exists in “real time” and can never be erased, there is little privacy, it is very difficult to monitor and track, and it is an easy risk to the integrity of intellectual property and confidential information. The trick for restaurant owners is to balance these often competing interests.

Social networks pose a distinct challenge to the restaurant industry, which employs a particularly youthful demographic who have grown up with blogs, MySpace, Twitter and Facebook.  This generation posts its life “on-line” for all to see—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  This free spirited approach to posting often leads to problems in recruiting and employee relations as well as operational areas such as public relations and brand management. Employers who are not careful about how they approach and use social networks may learn too much information about applicants and employees. For example, knowing the political beliefs or sexual orientation of an applicant for a general manager position is certainly not relevant to the job, and could lead to allegations of discrimination should the applicant be unsuccessful.

For the naive manager who “friends” a subordinate employee and unintentionally discovers the off-duty sexual exploits and drinking habits of that employee, certain biases may be drawn about that employee that were never intended. These biases may also result in the employee being treated differently than his or her co-workers, creating a potential liability for the employer. In short, with Facebook and other social network sites, an employer may obtain information about employees that puts them at risk of violating anti-discrimination statutes and, where applicable, off-duty conduct laws.

The hospitality industry is incredibly competitive, and in a tough economy reputation is everything. One bad review or negative posting on a site such as Yelp or citysearch can sink a restaurant’s reputation, severely affecting sales. It takes little thought for a disgruntled or former employee to zip off a posting to a site that contains negative statements about an establishment, manager or employee. 

Another risk, intentional or not, is that it does not take much effort for employees to download highly confidential information, copyrighted material, signature dishes or recipes. Within seconds, these actions can reach an audience of millions. It is also easy for an employer to access and read employee e-mails and personal postings. However, understanding when trademark and copyright laws have been broken, or recognizing the boundaries of the statutory laws affecting the electronic workplace can be a daunting task for any employer. 

Because of these issues, it is essential for hospitality employers to maintain the following “best practices”:

  • Develop a uniform procedure for conducting social media searches
    • Designate a Human Resources professional to conduct the search and limit it to relevant criteria;
    • Apply uniform search criteria for all candidates and document the sites that were searched and the information reviewed;
    • Limit access to this information to only those making hiring decisions;


  • Prevent improper solicitation of guests and key employees through social networking
    • Review language in non-solicitation and non-compete agreements to ensure that communications through social networking sites are included;
    • Within parameters of the law, monitor social media when employees depart;
    • Review security levels of POS and guest management systems to prevent theft.


  • Train managers on risks associated with social networking
    • Posting employee recommendations on sites such as LinkedIn may violate an employer’s neutral reference policy;
    • There is an inherent danger in managers “friending” subordinates online because it may lead them to treat employees differently and adversely;
    • Inappropriate behavior online may spill over into the workplace.


  • Institute a clear social networking policy that is distributed to everyone within the organization
    • Describe how monitoring of sites will occur;
    • Detail who will conduct the monitoring;
    • Train those employees who will monitor;
    • Clearly prohibit defamatory, harassing, and discriminatory material;
    • Identify required disclosures, disclaimers, and endorsements necessary on social networking sites related to the business;
    • Notify employees that violations of policies can lead to disciplinary action including termination;
    • Obtain written acknowledgements from all employees that they received, reviewed, and understood the policy;
    • Partner with operations, IT, marketing and other key departments that utilize social media to carry out the policy.

    As our dependence and utilization of new media grows, the legal boundaries concerning social networking in the workplace are constantly being tested.  It is important for employers to work with counsel to ensure these are not crossed.  It is also essential that with respect to social media, employers review and revise applicable policies and procedures meet the organization’s business need as well as satisfy legal obligations, which may differ from state to state.

Topics: Online / Mobile / Social , Staffing & Training

Carolyn Richmond / Carolyn is co-chair of Fox Rothschild LLP's Hospitality Practice Group. Her practice consists of representing and counseling clients in the hospitality industry, financial services, retail, and manufacturing sectors on a variety of labor and employment matters.

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