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Workplace social media policies may violate labor laws

Pennsylvania employees probably take it for granted that the policies in their employee handbooks are valid and legally binding, and for the most part that is true. However, many companies are now under scrutiny for their social media policies that limit employee free speech.

The policies often instruct employees not to discuss their work on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms, and many go on to specify that disparaging managers or discussing coworkers could result in termination. However, the National Labor Relations Board has recently issued rulings that specifically limit these policies, saying that employees are entitled to free speech protection on social media.

The main ruling on this issue came in a dispute between a four employees who were fired from their jobs after discussing their workloads and the criticisms of a coworker on Facebook. Their employer said that the conduct violated anti-harassment policies, and the NLRB disagreed. Instead the NLRB extended protection to the Facebook discussion, saying that it should be treated the same way that offline employee speech is treated and analogized the discussion to picketing.

Companies like Target and General Motors are now rewriting their social media policies to conform to the NLRB ruling, allowing "concerted activity" that discusses working conditions and other legitimate concerns.

The chairman of the NRLB said that companies should regard social media as "the new water cooler" and afford employees' rights accordingly. As such, Pennsylvania employees should be aware of their right to free speech and labor organization on the job, but also keep in mind that the protections are limited.

Source: The New York Times, "Even if It Enrages Your Boss, Social Net Speech Is Protected" Steven Greenhouse, January 21, 2013

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