It’s no secret that what happens online doesn’t stay online, especially when it comes to workplace and employment issues. I’ve noticed a couple stories in recent bar journals where people have expressed surprise when real world laws follow people online, even as some of their job-related activities shift to virtual space. For example, just because you are using Second Life for work to conduct intercontinental meetings in real time doesn’t mean that you can use your personal avatar who wears a large pink bear costume with bondage gear. That’s apparently close to what happened in a story reported in the ABA Journal this week. The title question to the article was “Will Dress Codes for Workplace Avatars Soon Be the Norm?” That question implies that a lot of workplaces will use avatars, which, I think is less and less likely these days. Unless you work for a progressive tech startup or a company with a major investment in a virtual world, like IBM or the Mayo Clinic, odds are that you won’t have many opportunities to use an avatar for business. If you do, they probably already have a policy in place. It should go without saying, whether there’s a policy or not that if you’re on the clock, you should look the part. So, unless you’re Kat von D and your business is tattoos and piercings, odds are you’ll want to look a little more professional than the above avatar. The reason most businesses won’t need an avatar dress code is that it is easier to collaborate in real time now than ever before using more business-oriented software. Google Wave was an experimental application that allowed multiple people to edit and discuss changes to a document together in one place online. Although that project has ceased development from Google, other cloud-based software is taking off. The question of dress codes will probably be moot, since you won’t need to use 3-D virtual environments to collaborate, even though they were quite useful for that purpose until very recently.
The second issue that I’ve come across recently was a case summary in the January edition of the Minnesota Bar Association Bench & Bar magazine (subscription required) about an employee who complained about her supervisor on her personal Facebook page after being denied union representation at an investigatory interview. Apparently the employer discovered this complaint and terminated the employee. This appears to be in direct contravention of labor laws designed to protect employees who “‘engage in concerted activities’ for the improvement of working conditions.” The NLRB filed a complaint arguing that the medium of the complaint is irrelevant, as “concerted activities” have been protected in many other media and forms prior to the advent of social media. It all rests on whether the employee is acting alone for their own individual purposes or actively trying to engage others to improve the workplace. It’s hard to argue that posting to Facebook could be anything but trying to engage others, so the outcome of this case is probably a foregone conclusion, but there are still many layers of appeal to go through before we find out. Needless to say, it may very well swing back in favor of the employer if the case lands in the lap of some technophobic judges (which is entirely likely). Either way, it is increasingly apparent that, while social media are changing many things about the way we communicate, it’s the content of those communications that really what matters.