I’ll readily admit that the title of the post is a bit overreaching. But, a "trend story", by definition, cannot be half-hearted in its assertions. (I’ve noted my skepticism of trend stories back in this early post, and I referred readers to Slate columnist Jack Shafer who is particular good at pointing them out.)
While trend stories can’t equivocate, I can. And as you’ll see in a trend story to appear in Monday’s print editions of the Connecticut Law Tribune, I’m hesitant to find a trend, yet, in online message boards.
Indeed, while there is plenty of caselaw about printed "cork" message boards, there isn’t nearly as much about how courts are going to treat online message boards in the workplace. And there isn’t a wealth of data yet to see if the benefits of message boards outweigh the significant risks associated with them
For that reason, and the belief that eventually a system that is good for most employees may be abused by a few (previous examples: sick days, business expenses, etc.), online message boards may be one area ripe for litigation. It just hasn’t happened yet.
Nevertheless, the Trib does a good job providing some perspective on things so this is one trend story that didn’t spiral out of control. Here’s my thoughts about the subject from the article (subscription required):
Companies’ internal online message boards used by employees can be fertile ground for a host of legal problems for the employer.
That’s what labor and employment attorneys are advising as online message boards are increasingly popping up in companies all over the country, allowing employees to post comments to any and all of their co-workers.
"I certainly would not encourage companies to create message boards in hopes that employees will use them properly," said Pullman & Comley attorney Daniel A. Schwartz, who represents employers.
Other potential problems, he said, include employees disclosing confidential information and issues of union solicitation or solicitation in general.
For companies seeking to avoid message-board liability, Schwartz advised employers to "have non-solicit policies narrowly tailored to what they need and computer usage policies that clearly identify what’s proper and what’s improper."
"For some companies, the risks always outweigh the incremental benefits," Schwartz noted. "Optimists will say that message boards encourage communication and openness. But the pessimist in me says someone will abuse this. That’s the situation employers need to worry about."
Interestingly, because the National Law Journal also ran a piece on this subject this week, the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog talked about this on Thursday. He mentions a lot of similar themes to the article and states that "consistency" is key.