It appears that an announcement regarding the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the shooting death of Alton Sterling may be forthcoming, and many employers in the Baton Rouge-area are considering how the city and their employees may react. As a general practice, employers should take steps to remind employees to treat one another with dignity and respect, both in personal interactions and social media, and remind employees regarding workplace policies that demonstrate these values. Employers should anticipate issues so that the employer places itself in a position to diffuse issues before they arise.
In charged and emotional situations, like the news related to the Sterling shooting, employees and others often flock to social media to share views and experiences, vent frustrations, or to express support for a position to which they are aligned. Employees often fail to consider that what they say or do on social media may lead to hurt feelings or spark disagreements in the workplace, or that their personal commentary can potentially negatively reflect on their employers.
An employer cannot prevent its employees from expressing personal or political views on social media during the employee’s off-duty time and when an employee uses his or her personal devices. Yet, there are countless instances in which an employee’s personal posts have come to an employer’s attention, through another employee or a member of the public urging the employer to take some kind of action in response to the post.
Depending on its substance, on-line commentary – even commentary that includes vulgar language or profanity – may (in some instances) be protected by law. Therefore, if an employee posts what could be perceived as objectionable or antagonistic content on social media regarding the Sterling investigation, employers should remain calm and must consider the substance of the post.
In instances where a member of the public complains to an employer about an employee’s post or negatively comments about an employee’s post, it may be appropriate for the employer to designate a spokesperson to respond on the employer’s behalf with a short statement acknowledging the inquiry or comment, thanking the commentator for bringing the matter to the employer’s attention, stating that the employer takes all inquiries and complaints seriously, and stating that the employer will look into the issue further. It may also be appropriate to suggest that the commentator contact the employer’s spokesperson by telephone to further discuss the matter and attempt to resolve the issue. In many instances, it is better to take the merits of the discussion off-line, rather than to prolong the on-line life of a thorny issue raised in a post.