Earlier this week, I wrote about the issue of threats made via Facebook constitute constitutionally protected speech.  Today’s post also is about threats made via Facebook but in the context of the workplace.  The case, decided by the Court of Appeals of Ohio, is timed perfectly for my road trip tomorrow to Ohio.  social media letterpress

In Ames v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, an employee, a Senior Parole Officer, was sent for an independent medical exam after she posted a Facebook comment that her employer believed to be a threat.  The comment was in reference to shooting parolees.  The employee claimed that the comment was a joke.  The psychologist who conducted the exam cleared her to return to work, finding no evidence of depression, anxiety, or mood disturbance.

A few months later, the employer received an “anonymous” complaint that the employee was using her state-issued computer for non-work purposes.  It turned out that the complaint actually was made by the new partner of the employee’s ex-girlfriend.  The new partner, of course, was a co-worker. There was an investigation and the employee was issued a written reprimand.

A few months later, the co-worker (partner of employee’s ex), files an incident report alleging that the employee had sent a threatening text message to the co-worker and the ex.  A few weeks later, the employee filed an incident report against the co-worker, alleging that the co-worker had used a state computer for, you guessed it, non-work-related purposes. An investigation was begun.

Days later, the co-worker notified the employer that the ex had filed for an order of protection against the employee.  In the motion, the ex claimed that, two years earlier, the employee had held a gun to her head.  The employee denied that any such incident had occurred.

In any event, the employer sent the employee off for a second IME, this time to discover whether she had a “propensity for violence.”  Now, I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that there’s no widely accepted methodology for determining whether a person has a “propensity for violence.”  Apparently, the psychologist who conducted the IME had similar doubts and gave an inconclusive report, failing to address whether the employee had any such “propensity.”  So the employer sent her off for a third IME, this time specifically asking the examiner to make such a conclusion.

The examiner declined to make such a finding, explaining that there is (as I believe I may have mentioned) no reliable way to make such a determination.  Nevertheless, a few months later, the employee posted a threatening message on Yahoo! Messenger to the ex.  She denied sending the message but resisted the employer’s attempts to determine if the account had been hacked.  As a result, she was terminated for the threat and for failing to cooperate in an investigation.

The employee sued under the disabilities laws, claiming she’d really been terminated because the employer perceived her to be disabled.  The employee lost, appealed, and lost again.

So, what are the lessons to be learned here?  Oh, my, there are so many.  Too many to discuss in full so I’ll give you the redux in bullet points:

1.  Love triangles in the workplace usually end badly. 

2.  Threats of violence made via Facebook can serve as grounds for discipline.

3.  Failure to cooperate in an investigation constitutes grounds for discipline.

Ames v. Ohio Dep’t of Rehab. & Correction, 2014-Ohio-4774 (Oct. 28, 2014).

The intersection of Facebook use and Free Speech is complicated.  Complicated enough, in fact, that the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the subject when it decides a case it is scheduled to hear argument in today, Elonis v. United StatesFacebook threat as free speech

The basic legal principle at issue is what constitutes a “true threat.”  It is a crime to use the phone or Internet to make a “threat to injure” another person.  And “true threats” are not protected as speech under the First Amendment.  So, “true threats” to injure another made via Facebook can be punishable as crimes.  Otherwise, the speech would be protected by the constitution and could not be considered criminal.

But what’s a “true threat?”  Is that question to be answered by the “reasonable person” who would be subject to the threat?  Or does the speaker have to have intended his words as a threat to constitute a criminal act?

In Elonis, the defendant was arrested after making violent threats directed to his ex-wife (and others).  At trial, he testified that he did not intend to frighten anyone and compared his posts to rap lyrics.  The jury didn’t buy it and found that a reasonable person would have viewed the posts as “true threats.”  So now the Supreme Court will decide what the “true test” for “true threats” should be. 

The legal issue may appear easier than it is.  The facts of the case may make the speech and speaker less sympathetic.  For example, his Facebook comments included the following about his wife, after she left with their two children:

If I only knew then what I know now, I would have smothered [you] with a pillow, dumped your body in the back seat, dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like rape and murder.

He later posted, “I’m not gonna rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”  And, when a court issued the wife a protective order, Elonis posted whether it was “thick enough to stop a bullet.”  He also threatened to kill an FBI agent and to slaughter a class of kindergarten students, reports the LA Times.

Well, it’s happened again. The Delaware Employment Law Blog was selected as one of the Top 100 Legal Blogs in the country by the ABA Journal Magazine.  Because this is my fifth year as an honoree, I’ve been inducted into the magazine’s Hall of Fame, where I join my friend Dan Schwartz, whose Connecticut Employment Law Blog was inducted in 2013.  In my world, this is the most prestigious award a legal blogger can receive and it is such an honor to have been selected again. It is, as the saying goes, truly an embarrassment of riches.

ABA Journal Top Blawg 100

To those who nominated us for the award, thank you.  To all of our readers, thank you. And to all of the many, many, many employment law bloggers who continue to set an incredibly high standard for the rest of us, thank you.

I share the honor this year with seven other employment-law bloggers, each of who does a tremendous job reporting on the various aspects our shared practice area. Many of you already read the blogs of my co-winners but, if you don’t, you should.  I continue to be humbled by the company I have been permitted to keep.

Writing a legal blog is a labor of love. And, by that, I mean that it doesn’t pay the bills. To consistently put up quality posts that are original and interesting to readers is no easy feat–especially when the demands of our day jobs can be, well, demanding. To be recognized for the hard work that goes into writing a legal blog really does mean so much. Almost as much as knowing that our readers find value in the content that we generate.

You can vote for your favorite in the employment-law category at the ABA Journal site . . . but no pressure, really.  Voting is open through December 11.  You can find all of the Top 100 bloggers on Twitter through the ABA Journal’s list.

So, as Frank and Ed used to say in those classic Bartles & James commercials, “Thank you for your support.”

Investigating complaints of inappropriate workplace conduct is a difficult challenge for any number of reasons. But conducting an immediate and thorough investigation is critical to both preventing lawsuits and to avoiding liability should a lawsuit arise. Human-resource professionals often ask for tips in handling this challenge. Here are three. male female sign

First, don’t be shy. An investigation of workplace harassment is not the time to be timid. Ask the tough questions and be direct. Don’t mince words or dance around the questions. Consider writing out the questions that you need answers to and actually check them off your list. If you don’t ask a straight question, you’ll never get a straight answer.

Second, don’t decide anything in advance. This is important because, if you’ve already made your mind up before you ask the question, you’ve already failed as an investigator. In order to get the information that you need, you must truly listen. And the interviewee will know if you’re not listening. So keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions.

Third, remember that there may be more than one version of the “truth.” It’s rare that I am presented with a complaining witness who I think is actually “lying.” It’s far, far more common that the complainant misunderstood the events or misinterpreted the meaning. And, frequently, for one reason or another, the complainant has repeated the story so many times in his or head that the story has become the truth. In other words, the complainant truly believes that the events occurred the way that he or she is describing them.

There is a tremendous body of social-science research about this third item. Eye-witness accounts can be, well, dead wrong. If you think you’re the exception, or, if you just want to see how differently people can see the same event, you may want to take a look at the “selective attention test” by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.  Watch the video and see how many passes you count and then compare your answer to others . . . and then consider how certain you should be about the observations of the employees you’re interviewing.

Employers, do you know what apps your employees are using?  That’s the question posed by a recent article in the WSJ.  (See Companies Don’t Know What Apps Their Employees Are Using).  My guess is that the answer to this important question is, “No.”  Here are my top tips for how not to be the employer discussed in the WSJ article.  employee cloud storage

First, have a policy about employees’ use of cloud-based apps to save work-related documents.  Consider prohibiting employees from saving work documents to cloud-based storage accounts such as Dropbox, SkyDrive, and Box.net.  Also consider prohibiting employees from backing up the contents of their work laptops to cloud-based back-up accounts, such as Mozy and Carbonite.

Second, communicate your policy to all affected employees.  If employees don’t know about the prohibitions, your policy is unlikely to have the desired deterrent factor.  This means that your policy needs to be written in plain English and that it should be publicized to employees in a way that will actually be heard.

Third, enforce the policy.  Don’t make exceptions.  If an employee violates the policy, the employee should be disciplined accordingly.  Even if the employee is your favorite employee.  And even if the employee complains a lot about the policy-and claims that he or she needs the online storage and/or back-up accounts.  The answer is “no.”  And that answer must be consistent, regardless of how loudly an employee complains.

As a bonus point, I’ll note that employers should consider having all employees execute a confidentiality agreement.  The agreement can be very brief-a paragraph long does the trick, most of the time.  But the key is to have all employees execute the document.  And, ideally, have the employees reaffirm their adherence to the confidentiality agreement on a yearly basis.

A lot of additional work?   Yes.  But, if you have an employee who defects to a competitor and takes with him several gigabytes worth of your confidential data, the extra “work” will be worthwhile.  You’ll be glad you have taken these steps-and don’t hesitate to thank me for the great suggestions. 

Employers face a serious challenge when trying to prevent employees from taking confidential and proprietary information with them when they leave to join a new employer-particularly when the new employer is a competitor.   When an employer becomes suspicious about an ex-employee’s activities prior to his or her last day of work, there are a limited number of safe avenues for the employer to pursue.  privacy policy with green folder

Generally, an employer should not review the employee’s personal emails or text messages if they were sent or received outside the employer’s network.  But what if the employee turns over his personal emails or text messages without realizing it?  The answer is, as always, “it depends.”  A recent case from a federal court in California addresses the issue in a limited context.

After the employee resigned, the employer sued him for misappropriating trade secrets.  He filed counterclaims, accusing the employer of violating the federal Wiretap Act, the Stored Communications Act (SCA), and state privacy laws.  The employee alleged that the employer had reviewed his text personal text messages on the iPhone issued to him by the former employer after he’d returned it but before he unlinked his Apple account from the phone.

All of the employee’s counter-claims were dismissed by the court.  The court found that the Wiretap Act claim failed because there was no allegation that the employer had intentionally intercepted any messages.  The SCA claims failed because there was no allegation that the employer had accessed any messages.  And, perhaps most obviously, the privacy claims failed because the employee could not have had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The court specifically found that the employee had “failed to comport himself in a manner consistent with objectively reasonable expectation of privacy” by failing to unlink his old phone from his Apple account, which is what caused the transmission of his text messages to his former employer.

Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Victor, No. C 13-4240-SBA (N.D. Cal. Aug. 28, 2014).

See also

Too Creepy to Win: Employer Access to Employee Emails

Traveling for Work and Late-Night Emails

Lawful Employer Investigations of Facebook . . . Sort Of

Employers, Facebook, and the SCA Do Not a Love Triangle Make

Employees telling secrets online was the subject of yesterday’s post, Keeping Secrets on Social Media.  Today’s post–a continuation of the theme from yesterday–is about “auto-expire” apps. 

telling secrets

An “auto-expire” app is an app that enables users to set an automatic expiration date and time for social-media or other online content.  There are lots of reasons one would use an auto-expire app but the three that come immediately to mind are regret, efficiency, and secrecy.

Social-media regret is nothing new.  Just last summer, I wrote a post about social-media regret syndrome.  Auto-expire apps like Xpire, for example, allow users to set expiring posts for Facebook, Twitter, and Tumbler. 

Efficiency also is a reason to consider these apps. You don’t need to keep (or have others keep) the series of text messages exchanged about where to meet for lunch. 

But secrecy, in my opinion, is the most prominent reason for the increased interest in these auto-expire apps.  In the employment context, there may be security reasons for having highly confidential discussions automatically deleted forever.  Apps like Wickr (branded as “a top-secret messenger), are targeted to businesses for exactly that reason.  Wickr advertises that messages sent through the app contain no geolocation data and are not tracked or monitored–what’s yours is yours and cannot be accessed by the host site.

Be careful, though, about what you send through these apps–people are often surprised by the utility of having access to evidence in the form of contemporaneous posts and conversations.  But, for certain exchanges, you can imagine the equally powerful utility of having an untraceable and permanently deleted line of communications.

The title of this post is a bit laughable, isn’t it?  I mean, really, it’s almost an oxymoron.  Keeping secrets on social media?  What’s the point?  The very existence of social media is dependent upon sharing-not secret-keeping.  But the two are intersecting more and more.  Which is why I am writing a short series of posts about the topic.  Beginning today with a post about “anonymous” apps. telling secrets

Back in February, fellow employment lawyers, Adam S. Forman and Dan Schwartz, and I were interviewed for an article in Law360, titled, “What Employers Need to Know About the New Social Media.”  In that article, I discussed what I think is the wave of the future in social media for employers-apps focused on secrecy.

For example, one app, Secret, allows users to share anonymous messages with anyon3e in their contacts who also uses the app.  Employers in the tech industry, where these apps are particularly popular, are struggling with how to deal with (and, preferably, prevent), the loss of confidential company information. 

For example, an employee hears through the grapevine that the Vice-President of R & D has taken a job with a competing firm.  Employee posts that hot tidbit on Secret, where all of his work colleagues (who also have the app, of course), will see it.  The firm can be seriously disadvantaged by uncontrolled leaks of information.  And, when the app is designed specifically for that very purpose, it is hard to address with any meaningful result. 

As a side note, educators are struggling with a related problem.  Students bullying other students via these anonymous apps is a serious problem that many school districts are trying to manage.

So what should employers be doing?  Well, to start, they should be reading this blog post.  If they do, at least they’ll know about the existence of these “anonymous” social-media apps and about the potential issues the employer may be facing already because of them.  Next, employers should consider investigating for themselves. Have an individual from HR subscribe to the service and see what, if anything, is posted about the company.  Although it may hurt to find out, it’s better that you know so you can make a rational decision about how, if at all, to address it.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss “auto-expire” apps that enable users to set an expiration date on their posts and messages.  Stay tuned.

Humility is a virtue.  And, for most of us, it doesn’t come easily.  Particularly for those of us who want to be good at our jobs and to please to whom we report, owning up to a mistake at work can be a difficult task.  Management professor Robert Sutton offers advice about how to deliver a truly effective apology in his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.  A recent article about Sutton’s advice summarizes it in three steps.  I'm sorry

1. Own It

When you make a mistake at work, own your actions.  And own them completely.  Don’t combine your apology with an excuse.  Omit the word “but” from every apology.  For example:

Do:  “I apologize.  I sent the shipment sooner than I should have.”

Don’t:  “I apologize.  I thought you said to send it out yesterday.”

The second example sounds more like blame shifting than an apology.  Own up to the error fully.

2.  Don’t Overdo It

The apology should be commensurate with the mistake.  If you miss a big meeting, you should make your apology in person.  If you are 15 minutes late to the meeting, a less formal face-to-face is probably required. 

3.  Offer a Solution

Employees who offer a solution for the problem that they’ve caused come out looking like problem solvers-a positive attribute in any workplace.  Can’t solve the problem?  Then explain what steps you’ve taken to try to solve it.  Just dumping the problem onto another person (particularly your boss) is not a good idea.  At the same time, make it clear that you intend to ensure that the problem not occur again.  Be clear that you won’t make the same mistake twice.

Traveling for work has its pros and cons.  I spent the last two weeks in sunny Santa Monica, California.  I was there to take multiple depositions in an expedited proceeding, which meant that I escaped my hotel room / conference room for a combined total of approximately 4 hours over a 14-day period.  In fact, I didn’t leave my hotel room or the conference room from which we were working at all until Day 4, when I took the extreme liberty of walking to the beach and back.  (Picture below).  I was out of the room for about 10 minutes-I didn’t even put my toes in the sand for fear that I’d never return to the room.

Two weeks felt like a long time to be away from home.  But it also felt like a long time to be away from my regular work routine.  In particular, my email Inbox expanded beyond my normal comfort level, as I prioritized the case that required my attention the most. Sunny Santa Monica

It wasn’t until late in the evening that I was able to make meager headway in responding to emails I’d received for other matters.  But, had it not been for those late-night (and, sometimes, very early morning) email binges, I would never have been able to get caught up upon my return.  I also would have had some very unhappy clients, who require their lawyer’s prompt attention to deal with emergency issues as they arise. 

So I have to question the premise of a recent opinion piece in the NYT, titled, End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email.  The piece features companies, such as Daimler, the German automaker, that sets limits on when employees can send and receive emails.  According to the article, “limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany,” where some companies have “adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends.”

On the one hand, putting technical barriers and/or policies in place that restrict certain employees can have its benefits.  In particular, it limits the risks associated with non-exempt employees who send emails during off-hours and who must be paid for that time as time worked.  But it also seems to have some less-than-ideal outcomes.  Specifically, as we move more and more towards a flexible work schedule in an increasingly mobile society, the ability to respond to emails when and where we want can be very important.  And limitations on that ability may not be all its cracked up to be. 

Alas, the work-life balance continues to be more of a juggling act than a graceful performance on a balancing bar. Either way, it’s good to be home. 

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