Q. A supervisor recently asked if he was allowed to accept a subordinate’s “friend” request on Facebook. How should we advise our supervisors?
A. As social networking sites like Facebook have become more popular, more and more workplaces are confronting this issue. No law forbids supervisors from “friending” subordinates. However, online relationships that Facebook fosters can create a variety of risks for employers.
For example, the subordinate may claim that a supervisor’s access to information posted online violates the employee’s privacy rights or even the federal Stored Communications Act. Such claims are unlikely to succeed if the subordinate initiated the friend request. The risk of liability goes up when the supervisor initiates the friend request or other online relationship.
Friending a subordinate on Facebook could also open the door for potential discrimination and retaliation claims. By looking on the employee’s Facebook page, the manager or supervisor could acquire protected information to which he or she might not otherwise have access, such as a information about a genetic condition or disability. Even if the manager never acts on the basis of that information, the employee may later argue that the supervisor had access to and took action on the basis of that protected information.
Given the risks, many employers have chosen to adopt social media policies that set clear guidelines for employees. An effectively implemented and enforced social media policy both educates your workforce about your expectations for online conduct and provides helpful evidence in the event any dispute based on employees’ online conduct ends up in court.