Social Media at Work: All Kinds of Ways to Get in Trouble

From slacking to cyberbullying in Arizona

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Last updated on January 20, 2023

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Phoenix employment law attorney Julie Pace sees a wide gamut of human behavior in her work handling both prevention of, and response to, workplace infractions. She shares some tips on how to stay on the right side of the line when it comes to social media sites in the workplace, and the various ways this comes up.

Not Working While at Work

News flash: What you do during work hours—that is, on the clock, using company equipment—is not private. Most employers will require employees to sign consent forms when they begin their job, agreeing to a monitoring policy. “So if you’re doing anything on company equipment or in the company facility,” Pace says, “you’re being monitored.” This covers things like opening a window on your computer to your Facebook page, or doing your holiday shopping online from your desk. “One of our biggest issues today is people going on social media platforms, or streaming movies—doing things for personal use while they’re supposed to be at work.” Monitoring can consist of a supervisor physically walking around the work site to check on employees or, digitally, getting a report from the IT department detailing employee browsing history. “Peer reporting is surprisingly common,” Pace adds. “They’re mad that they’re having to carry the work for others.” Pace recommends that companies institute a social media policy to try to restrict use of social media where they can. “But, of course, people bring their smartphones to work.”

Disparaging the Company on Social Media

Another intersection involves employees using social media platforms to express negative opinions about the company they work for, whether onsite or off. Recent changes in the law have made this more difficult for employers to address head-on. “In the past, a business owner always used disciplinary action and counseled people who engaged in inappropriate comments about their company on the internet. That was very common. They had policies that you couldn’t interfere with the reputation of the company, and standards of professional conduct,” Pace says. More recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has determined that such disparaging online communications are considered protected. If, for example, one employee rants that their employer sucks, and that statement got ‘liked’ by four other employees, “those likes make it protected, concerted activity and it’s a violation of the [National Labor Relations Act] to discipline for it,” says Pace. It’s no longer acceptable for an employer to have a company policy prohibiting employees from saying anything disparaging about the company. “But there are still guidelines,” she says. “An employee can’t say something deliberately false, like, ‘my boss is a child molester.’ You can say ‘my boss is a horrible person; I hate working for him.’ That’s protected.”


Yet another way that social media usage can bleed into work relationships has to do with the nature of platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, where work-based friendships can have a life outside of work. Communications that happen off the clock and on non-work devices can nonetheless affect the work environment. One example is workplace bullying. Pace sees a fair amount of this. “They come out of school, in an entry-level position, they were bullies at school and that behavior just continues.” Examples include disparaging a co-worker on a group social media post, unfriending someone and then saying things about them, or undermining a colleague’s work reputation. “We do talking points for supervisors dealing with this. There’s no bright line test for the right answer. If someone is calling racial slurs or gender terms, violating the anti-discrimination or anti-harassment policy, we can deal with that. We can’t make coworkers friend each other, but we can work on constructive working relationships.” Ultimately, an employer’s concern is creating positive working relationships that foster a successful and productive work environment. If you have a social-media-related workplace legal issue, talk to an experienced employment attorney to explore your options. For more information about this area, see our overview on labor law.

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