This month, Bank of America was forced to issue a public statement after one of its employees in Atlanta allegedly posted racist comments on Facebook.
It’s the latest example of corporate America wrestling with the growth of social media – and incendiary or embarrassing posts that can rapidly go viral, sending a company scrambling to protect its brand.
Nationwide, social media use has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks in large part to exploding popularity of mobile devices. Almost two-thirds of American adults use social networking sites, a nearly tenfold increase from 2005, according to an October report by Pew Research Center.
Rising adoption of social media is creating tricky waters for companies that have issued policies in recent years outlining inappropriate employee behavior on such sites. Some employers are now overhauling those rules to ensure they don’t interfere with employees’ federally protected rights, such as to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
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Even government can’t block social media struggles.
The city of Charlotte is facing criticism over how it handles employees accused of making inflammatory social media posts. In 2014, the city terminated a fire investigator for comments she made on Facebook.
Employment attorneys say there’s no end in sight to the challenges social media has created for employers, thanks to the ongoing emergence of new apps and rapidly changing mobile technology.
“It is a problem and a continuing problem … for employers,” said Jonathan Crotty, an employment law attorney in Charlotte for Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein.
“The technology seems to outstrip the ability of either the law or employers to set policies and boundaries and to respond to these controversies when they do arise,” he said.
Fired at Bank of America
Social media mishaps can force companies to take action against employees and then publicly disclose those steps on the very sites the incidents occurred.
That’s what happened at Charlotte-based Bank of America after the post on one of its Atlanta employee’s Facebook account made repeated use of the n-word.
Bank of America, which was flooded with criticism over the comments, issued a June 2 statement on Facebook calling the post “unacceptable” and “reprehensible.” The bank also disclosed in the statement that it conducted an investigation and then terminated the employee.
Bank of America declined further comment.
The incident happened just weeks after the Wells Fargo Championship’s Twitter account tweeted and later deleted a photo on Cinco de Mayo. The photo showed tournament attendees wearing fake mustaches and sombreros. Some critics on Twitter called the image racist.
In a statement at the time, championship spokesman Lee Patterson said the tournament’s intention “was to help fans celebrate Cinco de Mayo.” It was never the tournament’s intention to be insensitive, he said. Patterson declined to comment further.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is the corporate sponsor of the annual event, which is run by a nonprofit called Champions for Education and held at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte.
Accidental social media posts can also cause nightmares for some companies.
In 2014, US Airways’ Twitter account sent a pornographic image in response to a customer’s complaints on the social media site about the airline’s customer service. US Airways quickly removed the offensive tweet and issued an apology. The incident occurred months after the company’s 2013 merger with American Airlines, whose second-busiest hub is Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
At the time, US Airways said the obscene photo was initially posted to its Twitter feed by someone else. The airline said it sought to flag the tweet as inappropriate, but the image was accidentally included in its response to the customer’s complaint.
Policies being rewritten
Companies have sought to rein in employees’ conduct on social media by laying out dos and don’ts in policy handouts.
Wells Fargo, for its part, says it has social media guidelines in place for all employees and that, in general, posts made on social media by the bank are reflective of the company’s values. Bubble Wrap maker Sealed Air said the Charlotte company has a social media policy for employees, in addition to a personal code of conduct and disclosure of public information policy.
Charlotte steelmaker Nucor said it expects its employees to exercise caution and restraint in social media posts, which means not making harassing or defamatory statements that violate the company’s policies against discrimination. Bank of America has social media guidelines outlining appropriate and inappropriate employee conduct, but the bank does not disclose the internal policies with non-employees.
American Airlines said the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier’s employees are responsible for complying with the company’s rules that may relate to their personal or business social media posts.
Some firms are having to change their social media guidelines so they don’t run afoul of federal laws that protect employee speech about their employer, said Kenny Colbert, president of Charlotte-based human resources-consulting firm The Employers Association.
The National Labor Relations Board in recent years has determined some firms’ social media policies may be illegally discouraging employees from participating in protected activities, such as making comments about pay, benefits and working conditions, Colbert said.
“The more times you say, ‘You can’t say this,’ there’s a higher likelihood you could be violating the National Labor Relations Act,” Colbert said. “Simply making complaints about incompetence, ineptitude or wasteful spending or things like that, most Fortune 500 companies are shying away from terminating employees because of the NLRA.”
“Most of these major corporations every year for the past three to four years have tweaked their policies to meet the latest court rulings,” he said.
The board, a federal agency that enforces the act, in 2012 began issuing decisions in cases involving employers’ disciplinary actions for workers’ social media activities.
The board has said not all employee speech on social media is protected. For example, knowingly and deliberately false comments about an employer are not protected.
Standing watch in Charlotte
Some companies are keeping an eye on their customers’ tweets and Facebook posts right here in Charlotte.
Wells Fargo maintains a social media command center in uptown to monitor what customers say about the bank as well as respond to their questions.
At Bank of America, the majority of the bank’s employees who staff its social media activities are based in Charlotte. The bank also has social media staff in New York.
The bank has previously said its social media team is given autonomy to post some types of content without a prior review. The bank has said it has processes in place to make sure content that shouldn’t be put on social media isn’t.
In North Carolina, employers have their work cut out for them these days, as employees might be tempted to weigh in on hot topics such as the ongoing presidential race and the state’s controversial House Bill 2.
Crotty, the Parker Poe attorney, offers employees this advice before they post or tweet:
“I would ask them would they express those same thoughts in an internal email or memorandum they’d send around the office,” Crotty said.
“People seem to behave differently on social media than in their interpersonal relationships,” he said. “And when it comes to your career … it really isn’t any different.”