Social Media Advisor – When The Agency Comes Knock-, Knock-, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

The government is seeing the benefits of social media too.    Recently, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that United States immigration agents were being trained on how to use social networking sites to detect visa and other immigration fraud.   The government is also using the force of its search warrant power to explore the social media dealings of its targets.   For example, this year in the case of State v. Gurney, the defendant had surrendered to police after the apparent strangulation, decapitation and burning of his girlfriend’s body in his apartment, yet objected to police search warrants issued for his Facebook profile.  

The government is playing an increasing role in corporate operations, and one day your company may answer the door at reception to find an investigator looking to look into your little piece of heaven.   It could be the Department of Labor, or the IRS, or investigators looking into potential OSHA violations.   And no longer are the investigations constrained by what is on the written page, as we know that companies are using social media for virtually all aspects of their business.  

Online applications are being solicited and stored, employment policies and procedures are distributed and maintained on intranet portals, employee complaints are lodged on electronic forums that may or may not be sponsored by the company, and the company itself may even be discussing its business (and inadvertently violating some law) on its own blogs and web sites.   Social media is here to stay, and government investigators know that. You need to be ready for an agency audit by making sure your document files and online/social media practices are compliant.

Employer Take Away:   What should you as an employer take away from this development?

(1)        What generally triggers an agency audit of your company?   Government agencies may commence an audit of your company based on a complaint by a disgruntled former or current employee.   Or, the audit may be random, based on an agency’s policy initiative to target a particular industry or type of business.   An audit may even arise based on a prior investigation or inquiry into your company.   One of the reasons it is important not to act in a manner that raises the risk of a red flag being pinned to your company’s dossier.

(2)        What hot issues are catching the eyes of investigators?    Agencies are showing up to look into your employee versus independent contractor classifications.   They are also inquiring as to whether your employees are being properly compensated for the work actually performed in areas such as pre- and post-shift activities (setting up computers and work stations, changing into and out of required clothing, performing security checks and other “closing” rituals after clocking out).  Are required meal breaks continuous and uninterrupted, or are your non-exempt employees eating a sandwich at their desk?  Have you properly identified and managed potential OSHA violations?  Investigators are also looking for compliance with record-keeping and posting requirements contained in the myriad of employment laws.

(3)        What do you do when you are the subject of a government audit?   The first step should be before you are the subject.   That is, through coordination between inside and outside counsel, you are best served to conduct an internal audit of your policies and practices to determine whether you could ultimately pass an agency checklist on today’s hot-button issues.  

            But once the investigator has already arrived, it is important to represent your company appropriately, even while you are properly and vigorously defending your position and maintaining all defenses to the scope of the investigation.   Designate one company contact person for all dealings with the investigator, and have a discussion early on to determine the source and scope of any complaint and the investigation itself.     Keep your own record of what documents and online materials are being requested, and of which employees are being questioned.   There are certain limits to what the agency can seek, and when they can seek it.    In the end, finding the proper balance between defending your company and cooperating with the investigator will often expedite the time before the investigator walks back out your door for good.

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About Social Media Employment Law Blog
Social Media Employment Law Blog is devoted to the interplay between social media and employment law, an extremely topical and significant area of law for employers in this new technology era. Published and edited by Michael Schmidt, Vice Chair of the Labor & Employment Department, Mike concentrates in representing management in all facets of employment law and has been frequently quoted on employment law topics, and is regularly interviewed by trade publications and national journals for his opinions on legal trends.
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