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Smartphones are here to stay . . . at least until the next new-and-improved electronic communications gadget comes along to replace it. According to statistics,

  • 80% of the world's population has a mobile phone.  That is around 5 billion phones.
  • Worldwide, about 21% of those phones are smart phones.
  • 79% of US Smartphone users have their phone on or near them for all but up to 2 hours of their waking day.
  • 62% reach for their Smartphone immediately upon waking up, while 79% do so within 15 minutes of waking up.
  • 25% say they can't recall the last time their Smartphone wasn't next to them.

On average, Smartphone owners, age 18-44, spend 132 minutes, which is probably a low guesstimate, each day.  That's more than two hours a day. Of that total, Facebook accounts for 25%-roughly 33 minutes.

Of that 33 minutes spent connecting with Facebook, 16 minutes are spent browsing the personal news feed, 10 minutes messaging friends, and 6 posting status updates and photos. Overall, some 155.1 million people owned a Smartphone in 2012-roughly 49% of the US population. That number is projected to reach 222.4 million by 2017 (67.8% of the US population!), the study found.

So, what do all these statistics mean to you and your store other than your employees have their phones with them at all times? Your employees probably have (or will have) some form of electronic media that allows them to post their inner-most thoughts and feelings instantaneously. In other words, communication with anyone is available all the time. This can be an employers best friend or worst nightmare. We know of some stores who WANT their sales staff to use their phones to contact customers and post tweets about new merchandise. Others do not want employees to even have their phone on them while they are working and prefer that it be kept off the sales floor. It just depends on the store and the store's customers. Generally, the younger the customer, the more the employer wants the sales staff using their phones to contact those customers. This is a decision that each store must make and whichever way you decide, it is important to have it in writing in your store's policy manual.

More than likely, if you have not restricted it, your employees have their personal device on them while they are on the sales floor, taking a break, etc. Here's the problem: poor taste is not illegal. In most cases, neither is boss bashing or employer bashing. While an employer does have the right to prohibit use of personal phones while the employee is working or "on-the-clock" and to prohibit the use of company equipment for any form of personal communication, what an employee does on his or her own time, that is break time, lunch, etc., is up to them.  

Here's an example of what I mean. If you reprimand an employee for excessive tardiness, that employee may exercise his poor taste and bash the boss and/or the store to his friends on-line rather than recognizing the truth of his own shortcomings. That means you need a well-written policy and that is uniformly enforced. Does your store policy say that discussing wages is forbidden? Does it say that employees cannot discuss employee performance reviews? Here's the scoop: employers cannot forbid or seek to prohibit their employees from discussing wages, bosses, reviews or each other.

In March of this year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that if any company policy seeks to prohibit employees from communicating about their jobs, it violates employees' rights and is illegal. According to the NLRB, your employees may discuss their working conditions, including wages, benefits or each other in person or with electronic communication. As long as they are doing it on their own time on their own devices, you have no control.  

One of the cases ruled on in March concerned a Colorado reporter. He learned that his paper was in the process of being sold and vented to one and all on-line. The price dropped significantly and the reporter was fired. However, the NLRB ruled that ownership of the paper fell under 'working conditions' and the reporter had every right to express his opinions of how this could affect the working conditions on-line or in person.  

Employees cannot post trade secrets or anything illegal. This includes sexual harassment, threats of violence, bullying, or any "malicious" activity. The recurring rule was to consider whether the employee was discussing anything that related to his right to seek collective bargaining or business and working conditions. If any rule attempts to prohibit any type of collective bargaining, it is illegal.

Further, employees have the right to talk about their workplace, even to make negative comments that you'd probably rather they not make. For example, you cannot prohibit your employees from posting that a new line of merchandise is cheaply made or that the items won't hold up as well as _________. You can bar "rants," that is inappropriate comments that are not part of a conversation, providing such action will not prohibit employees' rights to self-organization. All inclusive policies that (may be worded something like this) "limit or prohibit postings that communicate disparaging or defamatory comments about the company or that could damage the company's goodwill and business reputation, even indirectly," are illegal because the NLRB sees this type of policy as being too broad.

This is America and freedom of speech is given to all; however, you can restrict the discussion of trade secrets or personal information (such as may be obtained from a job application, health insurance forms, a personnel folder, or a customer's accounts receivable account). Be sure to include this rule in your policy manual.

Put a policy in place to outline expected online behavior. It is a great way to protect your employees and your company's reputation. However, you must have the policy in-place and included in your procedure and policy manual and be made available to every employee before you enforce it. If you need to re-write your social media policy, you need to have each employee sign that they have received and read the new policy and file those signatures in their personnel folders.

In closing, one company suggested the following criteria to consider before making a post concerning the company (or anything else) to their employees. It is called the R's of social media. They are:

  1. Reason. Simply put: use reasonable etiquette, the same as you would in a face-to-face conversation with a co-worker.
  2. Responsibility. Make sure that what you're saying is factually correct, and also that it doesn't violate any laws that prohibit revealing privileged information.
  3. Respect. What you say online is, unfortunately, a permanent record, so don't say anything online you wouldn't feel comfortable saying to the whole office - with a camera rolling.
  4. Restraint. Before you hit that send button, pause and reread. If you wouldn't want that particular thought or contribution forever associated with your name, don't post it. I would suggest a further comment here. Something like: If you, my employee, may want a different job in the future, be careful what you post about your current job. Future employers may view an old post (remember what is posted is there F-O-R-E-V-E-R) and see only a quarrelsome employee who is a risk they are not willing to take. It would be unfortunate indeed for a comment made five years past to affect an employee's chance for a future dream job just because anger or frustration took control.

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