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LESSONS FROM ESPN: Free speech and your company’s social media policy

Posted on: October 26th, 2017 | Category: Employee Handbooks, Employee Relations, Government Regulatory & Compliance Issues, HR Documentation, HR Training Programs, Human Resources, Our Blog

ESPN & social media policy issuesThis fall has been fraught with free speech issues in the news. One case in particular that got a lot of attention involved ESPN sports commentator and host Jemele Hill’s politically charged tweets. The incident and how it played out in the public eye brings up an important HR issue that many employers today still overlook much to their own peril: the company social media policy.

According to The New York Times, after she tweeted disparaging remarks about the president on her private account (calling him a white supremacist), Hill stated that she regretted her social media comments “painted ESPN in an unfair light.” The company released its own statement saying that it had accepted her apology. For the most part, free-speech issues clouded what appears to have been an already vague social media policy at the network, which may be one reason why Hill was not punished. Then a few weeks later, Hill tweeted what many felt were inflammatory statements about the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL, according to CNNMoney. After this second incident, she was suspended for two weeks for being in violation of ESPN’s social media policy, a punishment she accepted without complaint.

Our question to you is, if an issue like this came up with one of your employees, would your organization be prepared for it? We’d like to offer you insight into why you need to pay close attention and how to evaluate your company’s current social media policies.

The ESPN incident is a cautionary tale about free speech and employees on social media

According to a recent article in the New York Business Journal, off-the-record talent agents expressed frustration with ESPN’s confusing social media policy. Even executives at the company agree that it has been too inconsistent in how it enforces its own guidelines. The article indicates that ESPN management may be taking steps to clarify its social media guidelines and spell out potential punishments before the end of 2017.

From the article:

Last month, ESPN President John Skipper tried to address ESPN’s social media policy through an internal memo that said, “we have social media policies which require people to understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN. At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal.”


But wait, there’s still more to consider regarding your social media policy.

Location. Location. Location.

The New York Times article explains that there are broad interpretations as to what is and isn’t permissible by law in cases involving employee rights to free speech, both in public and private sector workforces. What’s more, local and state laws and regulations vary greatly on this issue as well. Employers with far less legal council and funds than ESPN would be wise to think about how their businesses are situated to deal with social media use by their employees before an online emergency occurs.

And it doesn’t just end with what employees post. It is also important that employers realize the prohibitions and potential damages of their local social media laws regarding what a company does with information it looks for on social media about its employee and job candidates as well. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) cautions employers to know what is permissible depending upon where they operate their businesses, for this very reason.

According to SHRM:

At least half of the states have laws that restrict an employer from accessing employees’ and applicants’ personal social media accounts. These laws vary significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, though many prohibit employers from requiring job applicants or employees to disclose their social media usernames and passwords as a condition of employment.


You can still embrace social media activity without it hurting your company.

The Internet is full of great cautionary tales for employers about how social media can wreak havoc on a business. But social media can also be one of your best methods of boosting your brand and reaching out to the communities you serve. Besides, it’s here to stay. Your company has to deal with social media use one way or another, so a practical social media policy is essential. Your employees and managers need clear direction and understanding of your organization’s social media policy. And you need peace of mind.

Companies must make sure their employees know what is expected of them before they make a questionable tweet or post. On a basic level, companies and nonprofits should insist that their policies and handbooks are kept up-to-date. On a higher level, employers should provide meaningful training and support for managers and employees so that they can:

  • Understand how their social media use can affect their company
  • Be aware of this impact as they use social media
  • Make better choices to avoid situations that can negatively impact their place of employment

There is an upside to doing all this: It can require a company culture shift in some cases, one that goes beyond simply preventing social media blunders. Fostering a more positive company culture can lead to a boost in your workplace brand, which can attract more talent down the line. It can also help develop an environment that gives employees a sense of pride and ownership in your company’s reputation and successes. This can go a long way in increasing employee satisfaction and productivity, and it can also help reduce turnover. Who wouldn’t mind employees tweeting about that?

Need some policy and handbook help?

As we have written about in the past, there are National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules that say companies cannot inhibit employees from criticizing the working conditions or management via social media. And, of course, there are exceptions that apply. Plus state and local rules that can further complicate things. It is no wonder so many employers struggle to find ways to create social media policies that comply and still protect the name and reputation of their businesses.

myHR Partner can also help you navigate the confusing regulations and restrictions affecting your company through our myHR DirectLink services. Beyond that we are experts in creating customized employee handbooks to help clearly outline your company’s social media policies. These are not your grandfather’s handbooks—yours must be a clear representation of your unique organization. We are experts at putting together well-written, up-to-date handbooks that you will be proud to distribute and that will go a long way in improving employee relations. We detail your expectations, policies and legal obligations as an employer, and we also make certain your employees’ commitments and rights are spelled out in clear and easy to read terms.

Contact us today for more information about our employee handbook services, or any of our HR service outsourcing.

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