Phone with social media icons

What should employers do when they learn of unsavory activities outside of work?

Social media use is sky-high. In 2019, We Are Social reported that there were almost 3.5 billion active social media users worldwide. According to GoodFirms, 98.55% of surveyed users access four or more social media platforms daily, while GlobalWebIndex cites people spending an average of almost 2.5 hours per day on social media.

Social media used to be for friends and family. Now, though, the line between personal and public or professional life is blurred. Even if a user uses high privacy settings, they could be tagged, identified, or reported on by other users. It’s easier than ever for employers to learn of their workers’ extracurricular activities and personal beliefs.

An employer’s immediate reaction to something they don’t care for might be to discipline or fire the employee. But keep in mind that the majority of states protect lawful behavior on an employee’s own time. If an employer becomes aware that an employee was at a peaceful demonstration with a gun, and the state allows open carry with a permit, then it’s unlikely a law was broken. The employee may be protected by state law. And federal labor law may protect union employees engaged in legal activity.

But “perfectly legal” can lead to less defensible actions. If a peaceful protest shifts to armed attacks or looting, an employee clearly involved in illegal acts has few employment defenses. Whether the employer’s motivation is to publicly disconnect from an individual or to allay concerns about spillover in the workplace, illegal acts captured on social media put the employee in a tough spot.

Employers should avoid taking kneejerk action. Consider the following:

  • Did the employee break a law?
  • If no, does my state protect lawful activities outside of work? (This page lists state protections for political activity after hours, as one example.)
  • Does the employee violate rules during work hours that could prompt discipline or termination?
  • Does the employee make co-workers feel unsafe?
  • Does the employee’s activity reflect badly on the company with the public? In the industry?
  • How does my company address these types of issues in its employment policies?

A code of conduct and complete employee handbook can help define expectations for employee behavior outside work. These tools protect an employer’s reputation in the community when behavior is clearly ethically indefensible, besides being illegal. They also help co-workers feel that standards–and possibly their personal safety–are taken seriously.

Review our free Toolkits for steps to create a Code of Conduct and to hire people who match your values, as well as other ways to build an ethical corporate environment.

Stacey Supina, Executive Fellow, Center for Ethics in Practice, and faculty member, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas