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It is a fact. Social media is part of today’s culture. It cuts across all ages and all walks of life. While employers recognize social media’s presence and that it can, in some instances, have a positive impact on business, social networking can be a double-edged sword when it comes to professional sports teams.
Take, for example, a Major League Baseball club. The club has a website, Facebook page, tweets on Twitter, etc. The team wants its employees to be proud of their affiliation with the team and encourages employees to market the team. But, the club also wants its employees to be productive while they are at work. The question becomes, where do you draw the line?
Major League Baseball has drawn the line by instituting a social media policy that, among other things, prohibits employees of all 30 major league clubs from using the name or logo of any MLB team on a personal social media site or from linking to an official MLB site from a personal social media site. So, in effect, an employee of a MLB team cannot have a link to his or her team’s website or use the team logo on his or her Facebook page or other social media site. Some would say that is cutting off the nose to spite the face. Others argue that it is a necessary consequence of the social media craze. Where, on the one hand, employees can be the best promoters of the team, they also can be viewed as representatives of the team if they criticize the team or leak confidential information, both of which could be costly mistakes.
Professional sports teams are not alone in trying to sort through the world of social media and the effects, positive and negative, that it has on the workplace. Employers across the board are looking for ways to strike the delicate balance between monitoring and restricting employee use of social media sites and giving employees enough freedom to allow them to be content and productive.
Regardless of the stance an employer — including a sports organization — chooses to take with regard to employees’ use of social media sites, all employers should consider implementing a social media policy in order to clarify for employees what is expected of them and what is prohibited. While policies need to be tailored to fit the business needs of the professional sports organization, most policies should:
Include a statement regarding the use of company equipment, such as computers and other such devices. Contrary to popular belief, when employees use their employer’s devices for personal use, what they write is not private.
Address social networking both at work and outside of work. It should explain that employees who engage in social networking, whether on or off the job, must abide by the team’s policies and procedures concerning harassment, intellectual property, and confidential information and/or trade secrets.
Address the use of the team’s name, logo, uniform or other distinct means of identification on personal social networking sites.
Require employees who identify themselves on personal sites as employees of the team (either in writing or visually such as a uniform or logo) to include a disclaimer that states that the views expressed are those of the employee and do not reflect the views of the team.
Prohibit all uses of social media that disclose proprietary or confidential information such as player information, game plans, customer lists, financial information, etc.
State that employees are not permitted to tweet, text or engage in other types of social networking during meetings or concerning the content of the meetings.
Explain the consequences of violating the policy, such as disciplinary action up to and including discharge.
Identify a “point person,” such as a human resources representative, to whom employees can go with questions or concerns regarding the policy.
These concerns about social media in the workplace do not end with employees of the clubs. The professional sports industry is also confronted with the issue of how to address the widespread use of social media sites by professional players. In the past year, the San Diego Chargers fined a player for complaining on Twitter about the food at training camp; the Kansas City Chiefs suspended Larry Johnson for posting anti-gay remarks on his Twitter page; and pro tennis launched an investigation into whether players were passing inside information via tweets.
These concerns have led both the NFL and NBA to adopt Twitter policies that apply to their players. For example, the NFL prohibits its players from tweeting 90 minutes before a game and until after postgame interviews have been completed. The NBA has taken it a step further by completely banning cell phones, PDAs and other electronic communication devices which provide access to social media sites 45 minutes before the game until players have fulfilled their obligations to the media. Individual teams have also begun banning use of such equipment during meetings, practices and other team time. The Miami Heat has banned its players from participating in social networking while they are in the arena, both home and away.
As the world of social media continues to evolve, we should expect to see professional sports organizations implementing policies concerning use of social networking for both employees and players. By staying one step ahead of the game, teams should be able to recognize the positive role that social media plays with their team and its fans; and find ways to maximize the positive impact while controlling the risk of the negative impact that one bad tweet or text can have on the team’s image.
Terri Patak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Of Counsel with Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C. and has more than a decade of experience in the area of employment and labor law.