Economy

Social networking sites present challenges to companies

At the Bargain Zone, a freight surplus store in Lee's Summit, office manager Jeff LeMasters was clear about cell phone and Internet rules for employees:

No personal calls, no texting, while on the store floor. And employees had to sign a contract that said they'd be terminated for personal use of the Internet while working.

But LeMasters wasn't clear about what to do when "someone called and told us we needed to take a look" at what an employee wrote on Facebook.

The employee "was basically trashing us online," LeMasters found. The comments included profanity and derogatory things about the work and the owners.

"We had no way to know if that could have a negative impact on our business, but we knew we didn't want it out there," LeMasters said.

The world of Facebook, MySpace and YouTube postings is giving employers headaches. Often, employers like LeMasters are exploring on a case-by-case basis what rights they have to police employees' blogs and social networking pages.

LeMasters and business partner Randy Benton quickly learned they had no constitutional right to fight the worker's postings, but they did have a clear course because some of the Internet use had occurred at the store.

"We didn't fire the employee because of what was said," LeMaster said. "We fired the employee because the time spent online was in violation of the signed work contract."

Usually, though, there isn't such a bright line to guide employers.

"There's always a tension between employee privacy rights and the rights of the employer to protect the company image and, sometimes, co-workers," said Joseph Clees, a lawyer with the Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart law firm.

Several weeks ago, there was no question that Domino's Pizza would fire two employees at one of the chain's North Carolina units. The pair posted videos online of themselves stuffing cheese up their noses, sneezing on the pizza and passing gas on the salami.

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