Federal Lawsuit Highlights Issues Employers May Face Due To Growth in Social Media Usage in the Workplace

As employee social media usage grows both in and out of the workplace, employers may face more discrimination and harassment allegations based on employee comments and posts on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  A recent federal lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania highlights this issue, as an American Airlines flight attendant alleged that her male colleagues sexually harassed her through various social media outlets.[1]  This article analyzes the federal lawsuit and provides best practices for how to handle employee social media usage.

Federal Lawsuit Alleges Sexual Harassment Through Social Media

In Medlin v. American Airlines, American Airlines flight attendant Laura Medlin alleges she was sexually harassed by her male co-workers through disparaging social media posts and comments—including calling her a “sow” on Facebook—despite the Company’s social media policy, which requires employees to respect their co-workers and refrain from making disparaging or embarrassing comments while using social media off duty.[2]  The Plaintiff further claims that over the course of a year she sent numerous email to and left several voicemail messages with the Company’s human resources department, which did nothing more than apologize for the delays in responding to her complaints.[3]  Indeed, Plaintiff alleges that American Airlines failed to discipline her co-workers, and even promoted the alleged harassers.[4]  American Airlines has until at least November 22, 2016 to answer Plaintiff’s complaint.

Employer Takeaways for Handling Employee Social Media Usage

Although the Medlin case seems to focus on the company’s social media policy, employers should ensure that they have an up-to-date anti-harassment and discrimination policy and follow that policy when employees make complaints of harassment or discrimination, even if related to an employee’s social media activities.  The case also raises questions about the scope of a company’s social media policy and whether the company should monitor an employee’s social media activities while on work computers and work time, or whether the policy should account for social media usage after work hours.  There are various state statutes that prohibit an employer from taking action against an employee at work for an employee’s off duty, legal activities.[5] 

However, if a complaint is made by an employee about a co-worker’s social media activities, the employer should consider all of its policies to determine whether the co-worker has violated any of them.  The company should also ensure that its level of discipline, if any, relates to the co-worker’s impact on the work environment.  The company should ensure that all managers responsible for enforcing the policies fully understand and abide by the policies, especially when employees complain of sexual harassment or discrimination.  Employers should consult with their labor and employment counsel when drafting new or considering revisions to existing social media policies.

 

 

[1] Patrick Dorrian, American Flight Attendant Called ‘Sow’ Claims Bias Via Facebook, Bloomberg BNA Daily Labor Report (Nov. 2, 2016).

[2] Medlin v. Am. Airlines, No. 2:16-cv-05708 (E.D. Pa. filed Nov. 1, 2016). 

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See, e.g., Colo. Rev. Stat. 24-34-402.5.

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