Oklahoma and Louisiana join Wisconsin and Tennessee in recent laws restricting access to applicants’ and employees’ personal online content by prospective and current employers. Adoption of Social Media platforms continues to grow as do new legal and business risks arise as well as state legislatures provide new rules, regulations and guidance. As state by state compliance requirements develop, businesses need to review frequently overlooked elements of key social media guidance, such as how to approach specific areas like Monitoring, Content Approval, Training and Information Security.

This latest round of bandwagon-jumping follows efforts by most other states that have addressed the issue. The key take-away is that business need to take a state-by-state approach to social media legal compliance.

Generally, most of these types of laws prohibit employers from requesting or requiring that applicants or employees disclose a username, password, or other means of authentication for their online accounts.

Employers should be on the lookout for laws that address whether an applicant or employee must accept a “friend” request, change privacy settings to permit access by the employer, or otherwise divulge personal online content.

Another area of concern is the definition of “personal,” “social media” and “account. ” these definitions vary and often cover far more than common notions of social media.

Some laws apply to any online account, including e-mail, instant messaging and media-sharing accounts. Some laws address the scope of use such as “exclusively for personal communications” as opposed to “business purposes of the employer” or “business-related communications.” This carve-out further narrows the scope of the Oklahoma and Louisiana laws.

While these laws generally prohibit adverse actions based based on a refusal to provide user name, password or other authentication information, each law should be scrutinized for broader prohibitions, such as those against penalizing or threatening to penalize an employee or applicant for refusing such requests.

Technology continues to evolve and so does the legal and regulatory environment. Businesses need to continually assess and address the risks created by new laws and new uses of tech in the workplace.

Contact us for a free consultation to learn what we can do to help your business navigate the ever-changing regulatory minefield. What you don’t know can hurt you. We are here to help you avoid getting hurt.

English: A customer signing the at A Stone's T...

English: A customer signing the at A Stone’s Throw Jewelers in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiff in this declaratory judgment action had been employed by a subsidiary of an insurance company that marketed finance and insurance products to the automotive industry. After a sale of that business, plaintiff’s employment was terminated, but he was offered employment conditioned upon his acceptance of an “Employee Confidentiality and Inventions Agreement” (the agreement) which included non-solicitation and non-compete provisions. The agreement states in pertinent part:

“Employee agrees that for a period of two (2) years from the date Employee’s employment terminates for any reason, Employee will not, directly or indirectly, within any of the 50 states of the United States, for the purposes of providing products or services in competition with the Company (i) solicit any customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers, PARCs, and/or producers to cease their relationship with the Company *** or (ii) interfere with or damage any relationship between the Company and customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers , PARCs, and/or producers *** or (iii) *** accept business of any former customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers, PARCs, and/or producers with whom the Company had a business relationship within the previous twelve (12) months prior to Employee’s termination.”

Plaintiff successfully negotiated with Premier a provision that the restrictive covenants would NOT apply if he was terminated without cause during the first year of his employment (the first-year provision). Three months later, plaintiff resigned, began working for a competitor and sued to have the restrictive covenants held unenforceable stating that plaintiff had no access to confidential and proprietary information. The trial court held that the restrictive Covenants were unenforceable for lack of “consideration” – a legal term of art that generally means a bargained-for exchange of value. The appeals court affirmed.

ANALYSIS

Defendant argued that the non-solicitation and non-compete provisions were enforceable because the offer of employment was adequate consideration, there was a mutual exchange of promises (employment in exchange for restrictions), and the covenants were pre-employment, not post- employment. Defendant further argued that “the purpose of Illinois law regarding restrictive covenants is to protect against the illusory benefit of at-will employment” which was “nullified by the inclusion of the first-year [non-enforcement] provision in the agreement.”

Plaintiff countered with the argument that the provisions in the agreement are unenforceable because Illinois law requires employment to continue for a substantial period of time and that “Illinois courts have repeatedly held that two years of continued employment is adequate consideration to support a restrictive covenant…regardless of whether an employee is terminated or decides to resign on his own.”

The appellate court agreed with plaintiff citing Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Mudron, 379 Ill. App. 3d 724, 728 (2008) which held that the promise of continued employment in the context of post-employment restrictive covenants may be an illusory benefit where the employment is at-will. “Illinois courts have held that continued employment for two years or more constitutes adequate consideration. Id. at 728-29.”

TAKE AWAYS

The Fifield decisions has already generated a great deal of discussion from corporate board rooms to legal blogs. Unfortunately for businesses and their lawyers, the case leaves many unanswered questions.

For example, the court does not discuss whether the outcome would have been different if the employee were a high-level executive with immediate access to a wide range of highly sensitive confidential and proprietary information. At best,mother court simply mentions the plaintiff’s allegations that he had no access to such information.

Another area of uncertainty impacts start-up and early stage businesses. Very young businesses are often highly dynamic and early employees have access to a broad swath of the company’s Intangible assets such as business and revenue models, marketing plans, computer software and hardware and prospective customers, regardless of whether they serve a customer service function or “C-suite” executive function. The requirement that an employee have two years continued employment before a restrictive covenant becomes enforceable ignores the very real dynamic of start-up companies.

Lastly, an important question that went unanswered is whether the employer can offer some other “consideration” besides two years continued employment. For example, is there a pure monetary consideration that would support enforcement of the covenant? What if the covenant only lasted as long as the period of the departing employee’s employment?

NEXT STEPS

If you have restrictive covenants in your agreements with employees, it is strongly recommended that you meet with your lawyer to discuss the impact of this case on these agreements and your business. At the very least, you should carefully review your non-compete and non-solicitation agreements to see if they are supported by adequate consideration. If you have questions or concerns, or just don’t know how to begin, feel free to contact the lawyers at Leavens, Strand, Glover & Adler for a free, in-person or over-the-phone consultation. You can also email the author here: dadler@lsglegal.com.

In fashion, innovation never goes out of style. Therefore, it is no surprise that fashion houses and clothing brandsmarket across many different

Fashion (film)

Fashion (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

social media platforms. It is axiomatic that fashion marketing requires a deep understanding of the target audience, regardless of whether that knowledge comes from online or offline interaction. Social media provides a forum for a more authentic, transparent and personal engagement with the customer, but also highlights whether a brand has judged (or misjudged) its customer base.

To be successful in social media, brands need to harness the personality, wit, charm and, in all likelihood, free time of their staff. In order to ensure positive, informative and engaging social interaction, a fashion brand’s social media rules must be smart, positive and inclusive. Here are some guidelines for drafting a social media policy that will bring out the best in your brand, your employees (brand ambassadors) and your customers.

Rather than writing out a lengthy, legal boilerplate script, keep these considerations in mind when drafting your policy:

  • Philosophy. Begin with a discussion of how social media fits into an employee’s job expectations and performance. For example, guidelines are important, because if not followed “bad things” can happen, such as losing customers or vendors, the company could get into legal trouble, or worse, you could lose your job.
  • Behavioral Expectations. This is a good place to remind employees that even though it’s a big world, you are often in a small community and, on the Internet, it’s forever. What a person says can be seen by customers and employees all over the world.  Remind employees to stick to their areas of expertise and use respectful conduct. Other watch words include “timeliness” (posts should be fresh, current and relevant), “perspective” (something that may sound clever and racy to one person may be inaccurate or offensive to another), “transparency” (be the first to point out that you are an employee and make it clear that you are not a company spokesperson) and  “judiciousness” (use caution when discussing things where emotional topics like politics and religion and show respect for others’ opinions).
  • Channel expectations. If your company has a social media strategy, make sure employees know which sites (communication channels) are appropriate for which types of communications and marketing messages.
  • Contextual Expectations. Help employees understand the context within which they are engaging customers. Suggest using a conversational style. Remember that in customer’s eyes, “perception is reality.” Add value: Make sure your posts really add to the conversation. If they promote the company’s goals and values, supports the customers, improves or helps to sell products, or helps to do jobs better, then you are adding value.
  • Content Expectations. The policy must have clear and conspicuous language about what is considered company proprietary information, including current projects, trademarks, names, logos  and how they may be used. Never: (i)  discuss or post about financial information, sales trends, strategies, forecasts, legal issues and future promotional activities; (ii) post confidential or non-public information about the company; (iii) give out personal information about customers or employees; or (iv)  respond to an offensive or negative post by a customer.
  • Consequences. Lastly, be upfront about the very real consequences if mistakes are made. If a mistake occurs, correct it immediately and be clear about what’s been done to fix it. Contact the social media team if there’s a lesson to be learned.
Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Seemingly overnight, Social media has moved from a business curiosity to an invaluable tool for customer engagement, brand positioning and employee empowerment. For example, social media use for 18-29 year olds has grown from 16% in 2005 to 89% in 2010. A recent survey, now in its third year, found that Social Media is imperative and effective to stand out in a crowded market: 88% of all marketers found that it helped increase exposure and 76% found that it increased traffic and subscriptions.

Faced with the rapid adoption of social media services and platforms, companies find themselves in a dilemma: move quickly to adapt to new technologies, or put policies in place that support marketing goals. Finding the right balance between taking appropriate business risks and minimizing legal ones is a dilemma shared by all businesses, and it can be particularly tricky in the rapidly changing realm of social media. A social media snafu could pull a business into a range of legal imbroglios, involving employment law, intellectual property rights, advertising, defamation, libel, antitrust, and privacy protection.  What follows is a list of five common social media legal mistakes that businesses are making.

1. Your Company does not have a social media policy.

Social media is going through an evolution from social media to social business. Yet In the rush to avoid being left behind, some 79% of companies do not have social media policies in place. Companies and employees are becoming deep users of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogs, private-label platforms, and the like. Absence of a policy has led to lawsuits over basic issues such as ownership of LinkedIn profiles and Twitter followers. Lack of a policy could also lead to awkward situations that require a response, but may not rise to the level of a legal quandary such as public criticism by a volunteer or advisor.

Having a social media policy cannot prevent the occurrence of unintended consequences. However, it can address most risks that businesses will face and provide an informal framework for addressing issues that will inevitably arise before they become full-fledged emergencies that require a legal solution.

2. Your Company’s social media policy is unenforceable.

Not surprisingly, one of the most active legal areas of social media for business has been in the context of Employer-Employee relations. In 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report stating that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had received 129 cases involving social media. The majority of claims concerned overly-restrictive employer social media policies or employee discipline and even termination based on use of social media.

More recently, the NLRB released updated guidance discussing 14 such cases in particular. Significantly, the NLRB criticized five employers’ social media policies, as  “unlawfully overly broad” (e.g., too restrictive). In four cases, an employee’s use of Facebook to complain about their employer was held to be “protected concerted activity.” The benefit for employers is that the report frames the discussion for the appropriate scope of an enforceable social media policy.

3. Your employees don’t understand your social media policy.

For companies who have drafted a social media policy, another risk is that the employees who are engaged in social media on behalf of the company or brand do not understand the policies. Training employees about what it is, how it works and what’s expected is just the beginning.

For example, Australian telecomm company Telstra is an excellent example of social media transparency. This 40,000+ employee company mandates social media training built around a manageable policy focused on “3Rs” – responsibility, respect and representation. To promote awareness and understanding, the comic book-styled policy answers simple questions like “what is Facebook?” and more complex issues like employer criticism on personal blogs. Taking it a step further, the company published their entire social media training guide online for others to study and critique.

4. Your privacy policy is out of date.

Back in the early days of the Internet “Gold Rush,” companies raced to create an online presence complete with ecommerce storefronts. Partly due to the length of time it took to get a web site up and partly due to the fear of risks associated with ecommerce, companies made sure to implement comprehensive Terms of Use and Privacy Policies. Many have not revisited those policies since.

The risks of an outdated privacy policy are twofold. First, it may be unenforceable for any number of reasons. For example, the company has changed the way it gathers and stores information about site visitors, has changed the platforms from which it gathers such data and potentially with whom it shares such data, even unwittingly.

More importantly, the dynamics of online usage and marketing have changed. The availability of GPS data and commonly used technologies for targeted advertising and related services pose new privacy risks such as leaking personally identifiable information including usernames, email addresses, first names, last names, physical addresses, phone numbers, and birthdays. A recent series of articles by the Wall Street Journal analyzed the tracking files installed on people’s computers by the 50 most popular U.S. websites, plus WSJ.com and found that some sites like dictionary.com had over 200 such tracking cookies.

Second, an outdated privacy policy may subject a business to scrutiny and even penalties from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). On October 12, 2011 the FTC announced a settlement with a file-sharing application developer over allegations that it used deceptive default privacy settings, which would lead consumers to unintentionally and unknowingly share personal files from their mobile device or computer with the public.

5. Your Company is Not Engaging In The Conversation.

Lastly, social media enables instantaneous, ubiquitous, electronic social interaction using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. The platforms and services that enable this interaction also provide an unfettered medium for defamatory statements about individuals, disparaging remarks about a companies’ products and services and inaccurate or misleading remarks by over-enthusiastic employees.

The legal risk is that a company often does not control such conversations which can quickly spiral out of control. Many web sites and blogs allow comments and invite participation by unrelated third parties. Having a strategy for when, how, and why to engage is critical to mitigate the legal risks since this area of law is notoriously fact and circumstances dependent and varies by jurisdiction.

Contact Us For a Consultation.

Is your business making one of the mistakes described above? Do you want to learn how to use social media to market and communicate with existing and prospective clients and do so in a way that minimizes potential risks and pitfalls? Hopefully, the guidance outlined above can serve as a good starting point for discussions about how best to use social media as well as suggestions regarding factors that firms may wish to consider in strengthening their compliance and risk management programs. We invite you to contact us with comments and requests about how we can help you educate your employees, prevent fraud, monitor risk, and promote compliance. We can be reached at lsglegal.com, 866-734-256, @adlerlaw and dadler@lsglegal.com.

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