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Should You Track the Social Media of Fired Employees?

A man in a suit sitting at a table with a laptop and cell phone.

​Firing an employee is never easy, and in many cases it's inevitable that the dismissed worker will leave angry and hurt. While many behave professionally, say their goodbyes and move on, others storm out the door feeling bitter and vengeful.

Today, social media offers workers a number of platforms on which to share their displeasure, and there are also websites that provide a place for people to say what they feel. Glassdoor, for example, is designed as a place for current and former employees to comment on and rate employers. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter make it simple to air grievances, as do specialized sites like GitHub (for technology professionals).

No company wants to see its brand muddied by a disgruntled ex-employee. So, what's HR to do? Is it worth the effort to follow the social media profiles of dismissed employees? The answer, according to HR practitioners, employment attorneys and recruiters, isn't as straightforward as you might think.

The Law Comes First

First, there are legal issues to consider. Unless employees have signed a separation agreement containing a nondisparagement clause, they have the right to express their opinions as long as they don't pass themselves off as a company representative. Your organization has little or no recourse except in specific circumstances.

"There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question," said Anne E. Kane, a partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP. While there's no "legal impediment to viewing information posted publicly by a former employee," she noted that many state laws preclude companies from demanding an employee's or ex-employee's personal social media passwords or deceptively "friending" them to access their private postings.

[Need to learn more about Employment Law & Legislation? Speakers at the 2017 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition are exploring these topics.]

That doesn't mean companies shouldn't keep an eye on someone's social media activity, said Thomas Rees, head of the litigation and employment practice of High Swartz LLP in Norristown, Pa. He believes that, in general, employers should monitor the social media accounts of dismissed employees (or those who've left voluntarily) who may try to make use of trade secrets or other confidential information. However, like Kane, he said employers should proceed with caution.

In the last few years, Kane explained, the National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly held that broad nondisparagement provisions in employee handbooks and severance agreements may infringe on Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. "In other words, you can't stop current and former employees from making critical statements regarding working conditions, wages and hours," she said.

But Whose Job Is It?

Many HR professionals profess little interest in monitoring social media activity unless there's a specific reason to do so. And even then, they say, the responsibility shouldn't necessarily fall to HR.

"I wouldn't go poking around unless I knew there was some sort of reason to do it," said Sarah Davis, SHRM-SCP, the human resources manager of Tampa, Fla., law firm Carlton Fields. Davis, who noted that she's not an attorney and speaks only from an HR manager's perspective, said that active monitoring may not even be necessary. "Employers typically find out when a former employee says something [when] their former colleagues tell the company about it," she said.

Jason Kelinske, SHRM-CP, agreed. An HR business partner for Houston-based memory-foam products manufacturer Sinomax USA, he said companies shouldn't "waste too much energy worrying about what their former employees are saying on social media unless there's a specific and substantive reason to be concerned." While "any organization would be well-advised to monitor its image and reputation, how far those activities should be taken is debatable."

[SHRM members-only toolkits: Managing and Leveraging Workplace Use of Social Media]

Many practitioners believe any issues they uncover on social media should be handled by other company departments, not HR. "These seem more like legal or business matters," said Kathleen Monast, director of human resources for East Coast Tile Imports in Ludlow, Mass. She gave the example of an employee who is on workers' compensation leave but who posts pictures to his social media account that suggest he is fine. "I wouldn't address that directly but would send it to the workers' comp claims manager, who is better equipped to address it."

Many companies already have someone—usually in marketing—monitoring social media for references to their brand. That's the case at East Coast Tile, where over four years, two ex-employees made negative comments about the company on the website Indeed. Monast took advantage of Indeed's appeals process to have the comments removed.

Reputation Matters

Jessica Jaffe, a community expert at Mill Valley, Calif.-based Glassdoor, encourages employers to respond to both negative and positive reviews. "Nearly two-thirds, or 65 percent, of Glassdoor users say their perception of a company improves after seeing an employer respond to a review," she said.

Companies may not even need to worry so much about negative reviews.

Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP, and president of HRU Technical Resources in Lansing, Mich., noted that since negative comments can demonstrate a company's "real and transparent environment," they aren't always a bad thing. Besides that, he said, social media users "know sour grapes when they see them."

That doesn't mean employers should ignore critical comments. Social media users, Sackett said, "also expect to see a professional response by someone in leadership, hopefully the CEO, letting them know 'this was heard, we might not agree with it, there's always two sides and we wish you well on your future career path.' This type of response will actually be a positive to [job] candidates."

The experience of one small business, which asked not to be identified, bears this out. When an ex-employee ranted about everything from the workload to office politics, the company's CEO answered with a detailed response that put each complaint in context. The rebuttal worked. Current employees and job candidates told the company's owner that they viewed the company more favorably because of the CEO's response.

Because large organizations might receive dozens of such comments each month, Sackett said HR can help by giving executives information about each situation and helping to draft a response. He suggested scheduling time on the executive's calendar each week to address such comments and to make sure there's a reply to each one. Some organizations even have a point person in HR who responds in the CEO's name.

Jaffe suggested that at larger companies, department heads should respond to reviews that touch on their areas of responsibility. For example, if a user comments about a company's marketing department, that's an opportunity for the chief marketing officer to respond. "After all, the head of marketing would probably know more about the ins and outs of their division than a VP [vice president] of HR," she said. "They'll be able to talk about how to address issues, as well as use the feedback as a way to improve their department or determine what's going well according to employees."

The Bigger Picture

Davis said that negative reviews can even help a company improve. "What kind of work culture fosters the need for ex-employees to go complain on social media?" she asked. "It may indicate that they felt they never had a chance to discuss or vent their concerns." If five, 10 or 20 people are saying the same thing, she said, you "may want to take a step back" and consider your workplace's dynamics.

Sackett agreed. The best way to counter negative online comments, he said, is to be active. "If you never go on Glassdoor and you have three bad reviews, any candidate coming to Glassdoor thinks your company sucks," he said. "If you invite every new employee to give a review of your company … you'll see hundreds of great reviews, a few bad reviews, some average reviews, but overall, people will see a really engaged workforce, an engaged employer and a place where they want to work."

To mitigate the effect of bad reviews, Jaffe recommended that employers do the following whenever they come across negative comments:

  • Respond promptly.
  • State that all feedback is appreciated.
  • Address any specific issues raised.
  • Be considerate—try to understand where the employee is coming from.
  • Don't just tackle the negative; acknowledge the positive as well.

If you have a consistent strategy, Sackett said, "those very few negative comments from ex-employees will be meaningless in the great scheme of things."

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

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