Cornell University

February 11 2011

Social Media Forum

Worker privacy rights on company computers discussed

What happens when employers monitor employees' use of employer-provided communications devices, such as smart phones and company e-mail, in the way they can monitor the company bulletin board or onsite meetings?

Cornell ILR's Labor and Employment Law Program in New York City examined such issues in the panel discussion, "The Internet and Social Networking Sites: Treasure Trove of Information or Minefield?" today at the Cornell ILR Conference Center in midtown Manhattan. It looked at the legal and ethical implications of employees' use of employer-provided electronic communications for both business and personal communication.

Laura Sack Photo by Stephanie SutowPanelist Laura Sack, a management-side employment lawyer with Vedder Price, the event co-sponsor, stressed that because these systems belong to the employer, employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy. "Once the employer has alerted employees, preferably in a social media policy, the employer is fully entitled to access content on these devices," she said.

Another topic of hot debate was employers' use of material employees post to their own social media, such as Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. Sack said an employer's concern could extend legitimately to such content if, for example, an employee posted racist or homophobic comments about a co-worker that conflicted with company policy on discrimination or harassment.

The panelists also discussed Section Seven of the National Labor Relations Act, the so-called "heart of the NLRA," which protects employees' right to form unions and prevents employers from spying on or penalizing union members.

Gwynne Wilcox Photo by Stephanie Sutow"It is important for unions and employers to negotiate policies governing employee use of electronic devices and to keep the dialogue open," said panelist and union lawyer Gwynne Wilcox of Levy Ratner said. "Policies will differ according to industry, nature of the business or employee role, but should not be so broad as to have a chilling effect on union activity, for example through excessive prohibitions on disparaging remarks about the company or its leadership."

Contributing to the plaintiff lawyer's point of view at the seminar attended by some 50 legal practitioners was Laura Schnell of Eisenberg and Schnell who raised the issue of the employer's obligation to act if they discover material that could hurt another party. Adding to the employer's perspective was MTV Networks vice president and employment counsel Shanell Parrish-Brown who listed several kinds of employee misuse of social media, including disclosure of trade secrets, corporate strategy and confidential personnel matters.

ILR Labor and Employment Law Program Director Esta R. Bigler, ILR '70, said Cornell ILR was committed to presenting "diverse views to encourage thought-provoking discussions, especially in areas such as this in which the law and practices are still evolving. An attorney may use something she or he heard or discussed here in a case and it helps develop the law."

The program regularly offers multi-disciplinary historical, sociological, economic and political perspectives on legal issues in the workplace. See http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/law/events.