Monday, August 6, 2012

Social Media in the Workplace: the Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly

By Daniel J. Burnick of Sirote & Permutt, PC

When I tell people that I am an attorney at Sirote, they usually ask what type of law I practice.  My response is Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll.  After a little chuckle, I add that I do employment law, defending employers on claims of harassment, discrimination, retaliatory discharge and other employment related cases.  I also counsel clients on policies and procedures that I believe are necessary in today's workplace.  The use of Social Media (SM) is one of those areas that is often overlooked, and can lead to results that are good, bad or very ugly. 

Medical professionals may be asking what does SM have to do with me?  The following are two good examples of the bad and the very ugly. 

The Bad.  In Rhode Island, a Doctor was disciplined after she posted information about a patient on Facebook.  Although she did not identify the patient by name, she recounted enough of her ER experience that the patient could identify himself.  The Doctor had her privileges terminated at the hospital.  In England, EDP24, a regional newspaper, recently ran an article detailing numerous instances of hospital staff making inappropriate comments on SM sites, including congratulating a patient on her pregnancy after seeing her chart, and an employee "friending" a patient after obtaining information from the patient's records.   The Alabama State Nursing Association published an article in it's Fall, 2011 Newsletter about the problems nurses can face when using SM.   This is a must read for all medical professionals, in that it lists common problems that have occurred in real life.

The Very Ugly.  In California, a resident at a nursing home was attacked by a fellow resident.  His throat was slashed so severely that he was nearly decapitated.  When he arrived at the local hospital, staff took pictures of this mortally wounded man and posted them on Facebook.   4 staff members were fired and 3 others disciplined.  The LA Times story goes on to address numerous instances of hospital employees taking photographs of patients and/or medical records (such as x-rays) and posting them on SM sites or texting them to other employees. 

The GOOD.  SM has many positive benefits in the professional world.  These include the ability to market your practice, maintain or improve your reputation by publishing on blogs or professional sites such as,   and the ability to keep up to date on recent news and innovations in the medical community.  There are also internet sites that rate businesses, including doctors.  These should be monitored on a regular basis to see what, if anything is being said about you or your practice.  Disgruntled/dissatisfied patients may post defamatory comments or false ratings.  Also, there have been some instances when lawyers have had made up positive postings made about them.  They did not do it, and did not know who was posting the comments.  The article also states that the same reviewers were also posting positive reviews about medical providers. 

The Dangers of Social Media in the Medical Profession.  There are numerous dangers that can be associated with SM in the medical profession, including:

                1.  The loss of one's license.   By improperly posting information on SM sites, Doctors and Nurses may be subject to disciplinary action by the licensing boards, including fines, suspensions or revocation.
                     2.  Claims by patients for invasion of privacy or HIPAA violations.
                     3.  Embarrassment.  No one wants to see their name on the front page of the newspaper as the result of a lawsuit or disciplinary action.
                  4.  Loss of reputation.  It takes a lifetime to build up one's reputation, and in the digital world, one click to ruin it.

How to Minimize the Dangers of Social Media.  There are many ways to attempt to minimize the dangers of SM.  These include:

                1.  Having a SM policy that outlines what is acceptable and what is not acceptable conduct when using SM.
              2.  Training, training and more training.  Training can include in person training, reminders during office meetings, via email, or in writing.
                3.  If an employee is posting on a SM site on behalf the employer via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc., the employer should be sure that they own the site.       
                4.  Monitoring of employees' SM sites.
                5.  Think before you post.
                6.  If it is something you cannot tell or show to your mother, it should not be posted on a SM site.
                7.  Google yourself on a regular basis to see what is out there.  Also, sign up for Google Alerts or other similar program.

The use of SM in the workplace presents very complex legal issues, and the issues change on a  regular basis due to developments in technology.  The law struggles to timely keep up with technology since it changes so quickly. You should consult your legal advisor to ensure compliance with the numerous laws and regulations that govern SM, as well as the medical profession. 


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