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Practice Management

The Online Dilemma—(Mis)behaving on Social Media

by Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, MCP
    Smile and frown keys

    Social media provide abundant opportunities for meaningful communication with clients and instantaneous information sharing with employees and other businesses. Within the right framework, social media tools can be an asset for your practice. However, they also create opportunities for team members to expose the practice to legal liability—or themselves to disciplinary action—without even knowing it.

    Crafting and communicating policies about what is and is not allowable on social media—whether the practice’s Web site or team members’ personal accounts—are critical to keeping your practice’s social media presence a positive one. Let’s look at some of the potential pitfalls of social media at a hypothetical clinic:

    Life at the Sunshine Veterinary Center

    Monday, 10 AM: Wendy, the practice manager at the Sunshine Veterinary Center, gets a call from Ann, who says that she is ill and won’t be coming to work today. Wendy gets to wondering and decides to check Ann’s Facebook page, where it appears that she is “taking a mental health break from the horrors of Monday at SVC. The manager is a loser, the place is a dump, and no one has a clue.” That’s when Wendy decides that Ann is going to be fired; she can’t continue to make the clinic look bad in front of all 543 of her Facebook friends.

    1:15 PM: Wendy has an alert system that sends an e-mail to her if any of her team members post to their social media accounts from the clinic computers. Two alerts arrive with the information that Greg is posting to his account while he is on the clock at the practice.

    3:30 PM: A client calls about a picture he saw on a team member’s social media site. “The dog in the picture looks just like my dog, Alex. How is that possible?”

    9:00 PM: Just when Wendy thinks it’s been an interesting enough day, she gets a resume from someone looking for a job with the practice. Wow! The resume is impressive. Then she wonders: What could I find online about this potential new employee?



    Do you have a social media policy? Ten Tips


    A Balancing Act

    Social media sites have become integral tools in our business and personal lives. How can we use them in alignment with the rights of our team members, clients, and practice? Keep in mind that in many circumstances, what is allowable by employers and employees is still being clearly defined. TABLE 1 shows the findings of a recent survey on disciplinary actions resulting from employees’ use of social media. However, many conflicts can be avoided by (a) creating and communicating a clear policy on social media expectations and (b) taking the time to talk about policy infractions before committing to disciplinary action.

    Table 1. Percentages of Businesses That Have Taken Disciplinary Actions for Social Media Violationsa

    8%

    Fired employees because of Facebook posting

    13%

    Investigated protected information sharing via Twitter or other Web-based message sharing

    15%

    Disciplined employees for inappropriate media sharing

    17%

    Disciplined employees for violating blog policies

    20%

    Disciplined employees because of Facebook posting

    aOstrow A. Facebook fired: 8% of companies have sacked social media miscreants. http://mashable.com/2009/08/10/social-media-misuse/. Accessed September 2011.

    So if you were Wendy at the Sunshine Veterinary Clinic, what would you do?  Before firing Ann, or reprimanding Greg, or Googling the job applicant, consider the following:

    1. “Sick” days. What to do about a team member who says he or she is sick and then posts a Facebook status or “check-in” to the contrary? Talk to the team member about what you found. Maybe he or she was sick but still had to attend an event (e.g., a child’s school play). Let the team member know that if he or she misuses sick time again, a doctor’s note may be required for future absences. Most often, if it is an isolated incident, it is not worth a disciplinary action.
    2. Personal use of clinic computers. It is reasonable to ask team members not to use clinic computers for personal activity. To be completely fair, this rule must apply to all team members. Team members need to know that anything that is on the practice computers is considered business product and, as such, may be subject to monitoring. This can include blog entries, Facebook posts, and e-mail. If it’s private, it shouldn’t be on the work computer.
    3. Team members’ personal Web sites and blogs. Ask team members who maintain their own Web sites or blogs to notify you before they mention the practice on their site. Let them know that anything they post is solely their opinion, and ask that they advise their readers of that fact as well.
    4. Photos of clients’ pets. Before putting a picture of a client’s pet on the practice’s Web site, ask the client if it is okay to post. If asked, most clients are happy to share pictures of their pets for others to enjoy. However, team members need to know that pictures taken inside the practice are considered confidential data and that taking unauthorized pictures without the clinic’s knowledge could result in disciplinary action.
    5. Researching job applicants. If you look for online information about a potential job candidate, be aware that you may view information that is not appropriate for you to know. For example, age, religion, and lifestyle could be found on many sites in an online search, and none of these facts may be considered in the hiring process. It is acceptable to have a policy that identifies what information you are going to review online. If you want to verify that an applicant is a volunteer at a local pet rescue, you can check the rescue’s Web site to see if the applicant is mentioned. In certain states that restrict criminal or credit information, checking on applicants online can be a very difficult venture. Max Drucker, president of Social Intelligence (a company that performs “social media background checks”), suggests that having a third party check online information and report only what is allowed to be known by the hiring manager may be an acceptable way to gain information.1
    6. Confidential information. Make sure you have a clinic policy stating that team members may not share confidential and proprietary information about the practice, its clients, or its patients. This may include photos of clients’ pets.
    7. Grounds for disciplinary action. Be sure to have a policy stating that team members can be disciplined or even fired if they post proprietary, confidential, or defamatory pictures or other information about the practice. The policy should also cover harassing or libelous comments about fellow team members or employers. Anything that is determined to be contributing to a hostile work environment can result in disciplinary action, including termination. Be aware that team members who engage in creating a hostile work environment can be sued by other employees.
    8. Legal restrictions on online activity. The National Labor Relations Board has been tracking issues and lawsuits involving employee use of social media in the past few years.2 Its findings support the legal protection of certain types of communication, such as discussing working conditions, but not of libel, slander, or disclosure of confidential business information. Employees should be trained on the practice’s confidentiality policies to ensure understanding. 
    9. Employment termination. Consult legal counsel in any situation where you want to terminate a team member because of something he or she posted on a social media site.
    10. Policy first! Create the policy and train the team before there is a problem. Don’t wait for an issue to surface and then try to make rules. Having no policy means there’s no problem.

    References

    1. Preston J. Social media history becomes a new job hurdle. New York Times. July 20, 2011:B1. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/technology/social-media-history-becomes-a-new-job-hurdle.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all. Accessed September 2011.
    2. Anne Purcell; Office of the General Counsel. Report of the Acting General Counsel concerning social media cases. https://www.nlrb.gov/news/acting-general-counsel-releases-report-social-media-cases. Accessed September 2011.

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