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Social Media and the Workplace

02/29/2012 -

Two employees of a large pizza delivery chain had some downtime, so they decided to create a spoof “behind the scenes” video of how sandwiches were prepared for delivery. The employees did some rather unsanitary things to the ingredients as part of the gag.

In the past, the employees might have shown the video to a few friends on their VCR and had a laugh. The entire incident would have been forgotten within a week. In the Internet age, however, matters often take a different turn. The employees decided to post their video to YouTube, and it went viral—viewed by more than a million people within a few days. The company ended up with a major public relations nightmare on its hands, and the two bored employees ended up in jail on a variety of food safety-related charges.

As companies wake up to the incredible marketing power of social media, they are also running headlong into a variety of legal concerns related to just how much power they have—or don’t have—over what their employees post on social media sites. In the pizza video case, the company had the right to protect its reputation and to hold the employees legally responsible. YouTube is an open access site and the video was accessible to the public. But what if the employees had posted the video to a site accessible only by permission, such as Facebook? What legal rights, if any, would the pizza company have had to access the restricted site?

And that’s just one of the issues companies must wrestle with in the Internet age. Compared to the speed of the Internet, the law is moving at a snail’s pace. Courts are struggling to apply decades-old privacy and electronic security laws to the issues arising in the digital arena. Among the concerns are privacy, discrimination, and the right of employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment. It all adds up to a legal minefield that companies must tread through carefully.

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