Posted on July 27, 2015

Ask HR: Offensive Social Media Posts: Free Speech or Harassment?

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, one of your employees stumps you with a question you haven’t heard before. The pros at the HR Support Center really have heard it all—at least, until tomorrow.

Here is a recent question and expert advice from HR On-Demand, one of the features available to HR Support Center subscribers.

Question: An employee’s recent public Facebook post contains negative statements directed toward a minority group and has caused a stir at the office. It is her private Facebook account, but on it she identifies herself as working for our company. Co-workers and clients have told me the post is offensive and hurtful. I am also worried about it being associated with our company. How should I respond?

Answer from Jenny, HR Pro: This is a very difficult issue. While an employee has the right to hold views that are unpopular or offensive to co-workers or clients, the employee does not have the right to disrupt the organization's operations or harass other employees or create a hostile work environment. As the employer, you are caught between your policies and laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment and laws that protect an employee’s speech (NLRA and Title VII religious protections).

If the employee made no threats or statements about co-workers and is not a supervisor, then it may be safest to let this go and take no action. Anyone who does not care for such speech could always elect to unfriend or stop following the employee on social media.

Alternatively, you could hold a meeting with the employee (and a third-party witness) to explain the reaction the post has caused and ask the employee to voluntarily make the Facebook page (or post) private. Make it clear that you’re not disciplining the employee and that your suggested course of action is voluntary. Communicate that you’re not trying to curtail free expression, but are concerned that her views may be misinterpreted as the organization's views based on her identification of herself on the page as your employee.

If the employee’s post is harassing, identifying, or disparaging co-workers, clients, or vendors, or if the language itself incites violence or is hate-speech, then you would have more cause to intervene, with disciplinary action if necessary. Additionally, if the employee is a supervisor, then you may have more leeway to take action. Given the difficult balancing act and degree of risk in a situation such as this, if you do decide to take disciplinary action or to terminate, we’d recommend you involve legal counsel.

Going forward, we recommend creating a social media policy if you don’t already have one. The policy should prohibit discriminatory remarks, harassment, and threats of violence or similar inappropriate or unlawful conduct. With a social media policy in place, you have a clear and concrete standard to which you may hold employees accountable.

Over her 15 years of experience, Jenny has specialized in helping small to mid-sized businesses across a variety of industries reduce their risks and manage employee relationship issues. Jenny holds a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree in Human Resources Management from the University of Georgia and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree with a concentration in Human Resources Management from Georgia State University.

_This Q&A content is taken straight from the experts at HR Support Center. Click here to learn more about HR Support Center and HR On-Demand; we’d also love the chance to explain in person

_One of Paycor’s recent webinars also dealt with social media and the workplace. Find it here