|Gregg Gilman (far left) said many of the same rules and policies apply to the social media space during a general session at the HR in Hospitality Conference.
SAN FRANCISCO—Suzy and her supervisor, Johnny, are two of your most exemplary employees who work the front desk. They present themselves in a respectful, professional manner in front of guests and engage with each other in the same manner. But one day via a Facebook update, you see Johnny and Suzy entered into a relationship despite your hotel’s strict policy against it.
What do you, as a HR professional, do?
The above scenario was one of many social-media quandaries presented during a table-top summit Tuesday at the 6th Annual HR in Hospitality Conference & Expo.
While platforms such as Facebook and Twitter present new opportunities for training and engaging with employees, they also bring new challenges and wrinkles to the age-old workplace policies and practices.
In this situation, you could fire Johnny, according to Gregg Gilman, an attorney with New York-based Davis & Gilbert LLP. A user who posts something on Facebook without the proper security filters does so with no expectation of privacy, he said. Thus, you treat the case as if you discovered the illicit relationship in one of the “old-fashioned” ways, such as hearing about it from another employee or observing certain tip-offs.
“You have this new medium, but the same old rules apply,” Gilman said. “… If you operate by those rules, you’re going to be OK.”
Robert Mellwig, VP of HR for Englewood, Colorado-based Destination Hotels, agreed. “We don’t want to get distracted around the technologies,” he said. “… It could easily happen in any other form.”
Where an employer might get into trouble is if they “friend” an employee on Facebook under false pretences for the sole purpose of uncovering activity that runs counter to workplace policy, Gilman said.
It is perfectly legal, on the other hand, to use social media to vet candidates during the recruitment stage, the panelists said.
AJ Kamra, director of corporate HR for Seattle-based Dow Hotel Company, said they use Facebook to weed out candidates who show poor judgment by posting any and all personal content to their profiles.
“It’s not so much the content of what you’re putting out, but your judgment of not locking down your personal information for all the world to see,” he said.
However, Doug Patrick, senior VP of HR for Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels, said he wants to be able to see some of the more personal information on profiles—provided it’s not questionable or downright offensive. Social media allows him and his recruiters to get a better feel for each candidate, including some of the more colorful personality traits that could be an asset in the workplace.
Social media also helps HR practitioners weed out union “salts,” or undercover union agents who gain employment for the sole purpose of unionizing a hotel from within.
The HR team at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is taking a more proactive approach to recruitment. In addition to vetting applicants based on social profiles, they also head hunt potential employees via sites such as LinkedIn, said Debbie Brown, VP of HR for the Toronto-based hotel company.
“We think it’s a much more efficient way to identify talent,” she said, but warned of the risks inherent in that activity. Social media allows you to see things including skin color and discern nationalities and religious affiliation—which a denied applicant might claim was a source of discrimination.
For this reason, Nancy Yaffe, partner at Philadelphia-based Fox Rothschild, advised all hiring decisions based on social-media content should go through HR as opposed to other departments within the hotel.
The other big risk when using social media as a recruitment tool? Getting caught up in the time-consuming social spiral, Brown said. HR managers already have enough on their plates, and it’s easy to waste precious time digging down through an applicant’s profile.
“We have to think about how we’re going to manage our time,” she said.
More familiar employee outreach mediums including printed company newsletters or in-classroom training have lost much of their effectiveness in the digital age, the panelists agreed. Therefore, HR directors increasingly have to take their messages directly to the source: Facebook, Twitter and others.
Several of the hoteliers on the panel said such efforts proved successful. Online training modules attracted more participants who were more engaged and showed higher rates of retention.
Even better, employees could participate when most convenient to them because the programs were distributed online.
But HR practitioners should tread with caution, the panelists said.
First, questions arise when asking employees, especially those who belong to unions, to engage in work-related activities outside work.
What’s more, not every employee has the same access to or familiarity with the tools required to access online initiatives. Potential risks include charges of ageism or other discrimination claims, said Paul Wagner, a shareholder with Stokes Roberts & Wagner ALC in New York. HR directors should offer the same communications and training opportunities in alternative media to cover all bases, he said.
Section 7 rights
HR professionals must be careful not to overstep certain legal boundaries when crafting dedicated social-media policies.
One particularly sticky area that ignited debate during the panel was Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which grants employees the right to form, join or assist unions for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.
Wagner argued every hotel should have a specific policy that includes a savings clause that doesn’t interfere with Section 7 rights.
“You should also have something in there that tells the employee that he or she may, on their own time, be critical of their employer, but they should do so respectfully,” he said. “A lot of people have a problem with that, Gregg (Gilman) included. You’re setting up the inevitable situation where the employee does criticize you, and it’s not respectful. … The labor board is far more likely to go your way if you have a policy that clearly sets that out and has the savings language in there.”
“I respectfully disagree,” Gilman said.
First, he said he would never advocate an employee to criticize the company, whether done respectfully or not. Furthermore, the term “respectfully” is far too ambiguous to guide any action.
Having a savings clause is not going to make a difference, he added. Any close call will be ruled in favor of the employee because of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board, Gilman said.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Gilman strongly urged against planting the seed of Section 7 into the mind of employees. It can only lead to trouble down the road.