Social media use by employees has become a controversial issue in recent years. More and more employees have found themselves the subjects of discipline or even termination from their employers due to their comments and posts on social media, even when made outside of the office. Therefore, monitoring and developing policies concerning employees’ social media usage is an important legal issue for all employers, including churches and other religious organizations.
Churches may be even more sensitive to the impact of social media posts by their employees than other employers. For example, if an employee uses social media to broadcast comments, posts, or images that contradict the church’s values, it could hurt its image and cast doubt on its leadership. As a result, churches should develop strong social media policies for their employees and enforce them. However, churches also must be mindful of employees’ privacy rights under state and federal law.
Monitoring Social Media Use on Church-Owned Electronic Systems
An employee handbook should clearly state that all Internet activity, including social media posts and comments, that occurs on church-owned equipment is subject to scrutiny by the church. This policy would cover computers, church-issued cell phones, and other devices. Even if employees use their personal social media accounts, using church-owned equipment makes them subject to monitoring. If any use of this equipment is recorded, employees should be aware and likely consent in writing to the recording.
Requiring Employees to Divulge Personal Social Media Information is Illegal
Under California law, employers cannot require employees to grant them access to their social media accounts, divulge passwords, or provide records of their social media access and accounts. However, there is an exception for situations in which an employee is under investigation for misconduct, and evidence may exist in those accounts.
Likewise, although an employee might voluntarily give an employer access to a social media account, such as by “friending” a supervisor or superior on Facebook, an employer cannot compel the employee to grant this access. Similarly, if the employee posts information online that is publicly available to everyone, those posts are freely accessible by the employer, just as they would be to any member of the public.
Establishing Rules for the Church’s Official Social Media Presence
Like other businesses and organizations, many churches use social media to reach existing and new members, spread information and publicize events. Therefore, employee policies should state which employee or employees have the authority to official post content on behalf of the church. Those policies may also address what content is inappropriate and what content requires additional approval before posting. Finally, policies should contain provisions to help employees avoid running afoul of the law, such as:
- Prohibiting the posting of copyrighted materials on social media without consent can make the church liable for copyright infringement claims
- Banning posts containing images of children or confidential information without written consent
- Refraining from political postings that could endanger tax-exempt status
Set Expectations for Employee Behavior
An employee handbook should set clear expectations for employee behavior while employed by the church. For example, employee policies should clearly state that posts on social media, even if made outside of work hours and on personal accounts, can be grounds for disciplinary action and dismissal if they are contrary to church teachings or not expressive of church values.
Upon hiring, all staff should receive an employee handbook and copies of any such policies and sign a document acknowledging that they received the handbook and policies. This procedure helps set expectations of employee behavior from the beginning and provides a basis for disciplinary action, including termination if needed.
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The Church Law Center gears its practice to legal matters that affect nonprofit organizations, churches, and other religious organizations. This focus allows us to concentrate our efforts on keeping abreast of the ever-changing laws and policies as they develop over time. We are here to represent your interests throughout every stage of your legal matter. Call our California nonprofit attorneys today at (949) 245-3177, or visit us online and see what we can do for you.