Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become fertile grounds, unfortunately, for expressions of hatred and intentions to commit acts of severe violence. Indeed, just one day after passage of healthcare legislation, a news headline read: “Angry Over Health Reform Vote, Conservative Blogger Posts Twitter Call for Obama Assassination”. As workplace violence has become all too frequent with horrific news reports such as the alleged University of Alabama professor shooting and killing several coworkers, methods of advance detection and prevention are of vital importance. Indeed, as there are some reports that workplace violence is on the rise since the onset of the recession, it could be a potentially life-saving red flag to know when one of your co-workers begins "twittering" about his or her violent intentions.
Traditionally, employers have had to rely on old-fashioned means of detecting violent propensities of their employees, by observing changes of behavior including: displays of anger, aggression, anti-social actions or threats, despondency, foul language, disorganization, loss of interest, and/or complaints or word of mouth reports from co-workers. Electronically, employers with email monitoring policies and practices could also be in a position to detect anyharassment or violent intentions expressed via email or instant messaging.
In this regard, two New Jersey cases illustrate that a duty may arise to prevent co-worker harassment or injury to another when the employer knows or has reason to know that such harassment or threats are taking place via the company's internet. See e.g., Blakey v. Continental Airlines, 164 N.J. 38 (2000) (involving a pilot's claims for sexual harassment and defamation stemming, in part, from a co- worker's postings on an electronic bulletin board on company's internet). Similarly, in Doe v. XYC Corp., 382 N.J.Super. 122 (App. Div. 2005), the court held that an employer with notice of an employee viewing child pornography on the internet has a duty to investigate and act to avoid third-party injury. Thus, Doe suggests an additional step for employers to not only investigate reports of internet misconduct, but to discipline employees and report the dangerous internet activity to law enforcement authorities.
With the explosion of social media sites, it is also possible for any person with internet access to visit these sites and view public postings or conduct search queries for keywords, people, places, topics, etc. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on some companies regularly searching social media sites during recruiting, and ensuring confidentiality of business deals, trade secret protection, employee attendance, and loyalty. Similarly, I previously blogged here about social media in the context of sexual harassment and hostile work environment.
To get a flavor of some of the discourse occurring, I ran simple keyword searches relating to "co-workers" on the publicly available pages of these sites. The search results were voluminous and ranged from benign banter to disturbingly unequivocal expressions of intent to severely harm another person. Below are some publicly viewable examples of real tweets and status updates from March 23, 2010 (the persons' usernames have been deleted):
Publicly Viewable on Twitter
xxxx: So one of my co-workers is about __ close to getting smacked in the mouth #imjustsayin
xxxx: Saw the supervisor come so I moved my chair back..chair hit him in the stomach..#thuglife
xxxx: I want to shoot my coworker iin his foot
xxxx: If i had a gun i would shoot my professer
xxxx: Im bout to shoot this ____ up…
xxxx: i jus wanna stab somebody
xxxx: I wish I could just stab anyone that annoyed me in the face.
xxxx: i wanna stab this professor!!!!
xxxx: Throwing things at the head of another co-worker can have repercussions . . .
Publicly Viewable on Facebook
xxxx: Why is it that when I see a certain coworker, I just want to punch his lights out?
xxxx: Co-worker plays around too … much! So i threw a sledge hammer at him at a far distance but missed... Dammit almost got hin within inches...
xxxx:Chillin cant wait til get off before i slap my coworker acting stupid....... But i am praying and walking away..... Not worth my job or time
xxxx: Most people are only alive because it is illegal to shoot them......
* * *
The above results spanned less than a 15 minute time period and are just a fraction of the returned results with efforts to omit far more obscene and graphic postings. While many posts arguably are tongue-in-cheek banter not meant to be taken literally, it is difficult to envision some as being anything other than expressions of real intent to commit an act of violence against a person, often a co-worker. Even if the person has no intent to imminently carry out the stated act, at minimum, it paints a telling picture of how that person handles workplace stress and views those around her. Needless to say, if caught early enough, appropriate intervention, counseling, or alerting law enforcement could potentially prevent such violent intentions from becoming a reality.
Workplace violence can endanger the very livelihood of your workforce and must be dealt with proactively and seriously. From an employment law standpoint, co-worker violence also implicates issues of workplace health and safety under the Occupational Safety & Health Act. Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, often referred to as the General Duty Clause, requires employers to "furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees". OSHA provides useful guidance on compliance and prevention. In addition, the FBI provides helpful information to the extent an organization is able to create threat assessment teams.
In sum, while there is no affirmative duty for employers to monitor employee postings on social media sites, it is evident that these sites are being used by many as outlets to express frustration, anger, and intentions to harm co-workers. As even small rants can suddenly escalate into workplace friction between co-workers, employees should be reminded of policies concerning anti-harassment, and internet/email conduct and monitoring, and advised to report expressions of threats or violence. Finally, periodically reminding employees of the availability of an employee assistance program or channels for bringing complaints can be effective at mitigating the risk of a verbal rant turning dangerously violent.