Your employees will complain online. Prepare for it.

A case brewing in federal court in New Jersey pits bosses against two employees who were complaining about their workplace on an invite-only discussion group on MySpace.com, a social-networking site owned by News Corp., publisher of The Wall Street Journal. The case tests whether a supervisor who managed to log into the forum — and then fired employees who badmouthed supervisors and customers there — had the right to do so.

[Employers Watching Workers Online Spurs Privacy Debate]Photo Illustration by The Wall Street Journal

The case has some legal and privacy experts concerned that companies are intruding into areas that their employees had considered off limits.

“The question is whether employees have a right to privacy in their non-work-created communications with each other. And I would think the answer is that they do,” said Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment expert and partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP in New York.

Employees can pop into each others offices or cubicles and mutter under their breath about the boss. They can huddle together in the kitchen during lunch and complain about working conditions. They can commiserate on smoking breaks about unfair expectations, rude coworkers and.. well, you get the idea.

Given the power of new communications technologies, employers have to expect their workers to bring their conversations online. And given that workers will complain online, employers should consider themselves lucky if their employees are responsible enough to keep those complaints from the public. Yes, communicating complaints to the entire workforce is different from small groups complaining to each other during breaks. But it is simply unrealistic to expect workers not to use the communication tools they are increasingly used to and comfortable with.

Instead of reacting to perceived violations by employees, organizations need get in front of these problems. They need policies in place that recognize the value of online communications tools but keep that communication within the organization, protected from the public. They may even need to provide the platform where workers can complain and issues can be discussed in a productive way. Every organization will have its own needs.

But it is sadly out of date to expect workers to keep their complaints to offline water-cooler conversations when they have such powerful communication tools at their fingertips.

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3 thoughts on “Your employees will complain online. Prepare for it.

  1. Dan Michaluk says:

    Thanks for the post Andy.I agree with the need for reasonable and clear policy and measured responses. I’d like to expand on the idea that communicating over a social network is different than complaining to people during work breaks.I suggest that most employers value feedback, whether its about "hard" matters like legal compliance or the many "softer" measures that make the organization what it is. A good employer will have put in place effective means by which employees can communicate negative feedback in a manner that (1) ensures action and (2) does not harm relations between employees, the work environment or the organization’s reputation.The type of employee gripes I am often asked to deal with are neither serious nor meant to be actionable. These "bare gripes" can conflict with an employee’s duty of loyalty and fidelity, can cause compliance issues themselves (duty to provide a harassment free environment) and generally do not serve a valid governance-related purpose. Serious complaints (whether ultimately proved as valid or not) are different matter, but should be dealt with through a system that is designed to engender an appropriate response.As for privacy, you do admit that publishing something is different than having a chat with a colleague. An employer should have no problem with its employees blowing off steam after work over a beer or at the watercooler, but a written complaint published on the internet is is associated with much greater harms. Should publishing information to a "private" social network different? So far Canadian courts have said no.I raise these views as a management-side lawyer, but stress that they are my own rather than my firm or my firm’s clients. Thanks again for your thoughts. I do enjoy your blog!Dan

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Dan. There are definitely issues here more complex than just letting employees gripe online. But there’s an interesting relationship between this post (legal issues of employee complaints online) and the subject of my next blog post — innovative ways of dealing with third parties who represent your brand on twitter or facebook: http://is.gd/ulbo.In that situation (where somebody unrelated to CNN operated the successful @CNNbrk account on Twitter until CNN hired him instead of suing him), innovative companies have looked for ways to embrace the communities those independent actors have created. Similarly, in situations of employee complaints I think there’s room for new ways of dealing with employees’ online actions. The very technologies employees may use to complain can be used by employers to engage workers, rather than the basis for claims that alienate them (and other coworkers who likely share their views) or even terminate them.

  3. Dan Michaluk says:

    No arguments against innovation here Andy. Thanks for the exchange! Dan.

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