Written by Alexander Nemiroff

Employers are beginning to realize that their employees are sending or receiving recommendations on social media sites, such as LinkedIn, that are inconsistent with the employer’s policies, or worse, are false or fraudulent. They need to do something about it.

A large number of social media web sites are allowing users to recommend the work performance or services of co-workers, vendors, and customers. Unfortunately, many employers are not paying attention to this phenomenon. To their chagrin, they are discovering serious problems with these recommendations only when it is much too late.

For many years, attorneys have advised employers that providing positive or negative references for former employees can be problematic. Negative references for employees can often lead to defamation actions. As for positive references, a number of courts have found employers liable who provided false positive references for former employees that employers knew had committed crimes or engaged in other misconduct. As a result, many employers today simply provide neutral references for all former employees.

Unsanctioned recommendations appearing on social media sites also can cause complications for employers. Take, for instance, an ill-timed positive reference published by a manager on a social media site extolling his former employee’s honesty while, at the same time, but unbeknownst to the manager, the employer was contemplating litigation against the former employee for taking trade secrets or other confidential business information as he was leaving. 

Anonymous recommendations or endorsements by employees also may run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s Guidelines on the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, 16 C.F.R. § 255. For example, employees anonymously endorsing their own company’s products without full disclosure of their relationship may trigger liability. The Guidelines require not only full disclosure of such relationships, but that employers have procedures in place to prevent such an endorsement from being made.

To avoid these issues, employers should take several steps. First, employers need to amend their written social media and/or reference policies to address unauthorized employee recommendations and references on social media sites. Depending upon the circumstances, barring employees from making such references may be appropriate. However, this is not always practical or prudent for employers who are encouraging employees to promote their businesses through social media. Under these circumstances, employers may require that employees request authorization from their human resources department or other designated individual before making references or recommendations, and to make any necessary disclosures.

Simply amending social media and references policies and procedures, however, may be insufficient. Employers need to be vigilant and proactive in this area. Appointing suitable personnel, and perhaps a social media manager, to monitor public social media sites to ensure that employees are not violating these critical policies, is another measure employers should consider. When monitoring, special care should be taken by governmental entities not to violate an employee’s constitutional right to privacy and by private employers not to infringe upon laws protecting employee off duty or protected concerted activities. 

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.