Managing social media in the workplace: 5 thoughts for hospital executives

Social media is impacting the workplace like never before.

Rather than in-person water cooler chatter, employees are using "likes" and "shares" and "tweets" to discuss work or their personal lives. Facebook alone had roughly 1.5 billion users as of September and LinkedIn's latest figures show an estimated 400 million users. Companies now use social media to effectively promote the organization to consumers, but also to internally communicate among employees.

Given this trend, employers, including hospitals, must take great care in reviewing social media communications, according to Michael Moschel, an experienced labor attorney with Bass Berry & Sims in Nashville, Tenn.

"Social media is a wonderful tool businesses use. Employers then have legitimate interest in controlling their message and making sure their social media accounts and their electronic communication systems are being used for work-related purposes," Mr. Moschel says.

Here, Mr. Moschel provides five ways to manage social media in the workplace.

1. Focus on business purposes. Mr. Moschel believes it's OK to monitor social media activity by employees which could implicate the workplace. But he notes employers should be very cautious in monitoring employee use of their own social media accounts.

From a labor law standpoint, it can be a bad idea to monitor employee use of their own social media accounts because employers and managers may learn things about employees they may not want to know, Mr. Moschel says. For instance, if an employee is discussing personal issues, such as a close family member's health conditions, an employer doesn't want to have that information, according to Mr. Moschel.

"They [employers] don't want to have the knowledge that an employee's mother has cancer and then if for some reason they have to take disciplinary action against that employee their motives could be called into question," Mr. Moschel says. "They could be accused of violating the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act by taking an adverse employment action against an employee after the employer learns that the mother has cancer. If they don't know the mother has cancer, they can avoid those types of claims."

2. Don't follow a subordinate on social media. Mr. Moschel also believes it's a bad idea for a manager at a hospital to be "friends" with a subordinate on Facebook or follow a subordinate on Twitter or other social media accounts. Connecting with employees that way can be interpreted as a form of proactive monitoring of social media use, Mr. Moschel explains. The manager's actions toward subordinates could be interpreted as resulting from information learned from social media, or a manager may notice improper social media use by some employees but not others, resulting in uneven discipline — either of these situations could give rise to a discrimination claim, Mr. Moschel says.

Moreover, proactive monitoring is a high standard to maintain to treat all conduct even handedly, as it requires the monitoring to be thorough to avoid potential claims of discrimination, Mr. Moschel adds. In contrast, if a hospital's policy is to investigate employee social media use only when it becomes aware of questionable conduct, it is much more straightforward to ensure even-handedness, Mr. Moschel says.

3. Implement some type of centralized management of the hospital's disciplinary policy for social media. When it comes to social media violations, Mr. Moschel recommends all discipline at least be reviewed by human resources. This process helps ensure similar types of infractions are receiving similar types of discipline.

4. Have a compliant social media policy in place and train employees on it. Hospitals should not only have a social media policy that is compliant with law, but also train employees on the policy and what it means, according to Mr. Moschel. "I think it's just a matter of training folks during your [the hospital's] orientation or when you're rolling out a new policy and having human resources train employees on your specific set of policies," Mr. Moschel says. "Train somebody on your social media or online communications policy as part of training your nondiscrimination and harassment policies."

5. No double standards. Additionally, hospitals should make sure they're enforcing their policy consistently. A hospital's social media policy should apply to employees, contractors, vendors and anybody else who has reason to come to the hospital and perform work. That includes physicians who are contractors or just have privileges at the hospital.

A hospital cannot meet its duty to protect employees and provide a workplace that's free of discrimination and harassment if non-employed physicians are not held to the same policies as employees, Mr. Moschel says. The disciplinary remedies available to the hospital may be different with independent or contracted physicians, based on medical staff policy or the language of the contract, Mr. Moschel adds, but so long as conduct that violates the policy leads to some roughly equivalent form of discipline, the hospital is meeting its duty to employees.

 

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