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Northwest OH Legal Blog

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Does Your Employee Benefit Plan Need a Social Media Policy?

               In this 21st Century of personalized websites, blogs, chat rooms, Twitter and Facebook posts, Snapchat and Instant Messenger, the use of Social Media can be overwhelming.  On one hand, the use of these social media tools can reach fund members and beneficiaries more quickly and directly than direct mail ever has.  But on the other hand, the open design and use of these tools can be dangerous for several reasons, making the implementation of a Social Media policy a valuable document to ensure an orderly process and backstop for Boards of Trustees, and even employees, that are interested in using resources that revolve around social media to communicate benefits information or other work-related communications.  

               There are many issues that accompany the use of social media resources that must be addressed in an effective social media policy.  First, the ownership of the site or page must be clearly established---does the site belong to the Fund/Plan or is it owned by the Union itself or even an employers’ association?  What groups are granted access to the site or pages and who will monitor whether Fund members can respond freely to posts with additional questions or viewpoints?  When members terminate or retire from the Fund, can they still access the site’s information?  What rules under the Employees Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) apply to notices that may be posted on this site and who is accountable for ensuring that these ERISA rules are followed?  A Social Media policy should clearly identify the responses to these questions in order to protect your Fund and its Board of Trustees while spelling out basic guidelines for using social media forms to employees.

               Guidelines in a Social Media policy should emphasize a few basic principles regarding all means of communication or posting information of any sort on the Internet, including a Plan’s or employee’s web log, blog, journal, bulletin board, chat room, whether it is work-related or a personal electronic communication.  First, anyone posting communications online should consider both the risks and the benefits of such communications being seen by sub-groups and even the public.  Secondly, the creator of online communications should realize that they are ultimately responsible for anything that they create or post.  Finally, anyone who posts communications, either personally or on behalf of a Fund, should realize that any internet activities can affect their job performance, performance of fellow Trustees or co-workers, Fund participants, customers, suppliers and might result in removal as a Plan’s Trustee, an employee’s disciplinary action or even termination of employment.

               A Social Media policy drafted and transmitted to Fund members or employees should include components that pertain to a statement of a Fund’s, Union’s or Employer’s ethics, a discrimination or harassment prevention provision and a warning against threats of violence or unlawful conduct.   Anyone posting information should be reminded that being respectful is essential and that, any complaints or criticisms made of employers or benefits should avoid the use of photographs, videos or audio clips that might be viewed as harassment or bullying.  Everyone must be mindful that offensive posts made on the basis of race, gender, disability or religion could contribute to a hostile work environment and could violate company policies or state and federal laws.  Accuracy of any Information posted should be emphasized, an avoidance of information that is known to be false innuendo or rumor should be strongly encouraged. When expressing personal viewpoints, it should be made clear that the views are not reflective of the Board of Trustees, Fund or Members.  The effective dates of any notices, document changes or information regarding plan benefits  should be clearly posted and kept current.

               Boards of Trustees, Unions or employer associations should take time to collaborate on their intentions in using social media and weigh the benefits to their employee benefit plan, members and  beneficiaries against the dangers and risks to these stakeholders when social media policies are either not enacted or are violated.  For further guidance on Social Media policies, Trustees, contributing employers and Fund members should contact legal counsel.  


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With offices in Toledo and Lima, OH Allotta Farley Co., L.P.A. serves clients throughout northwest OH with various legal matters. Areas of service include Allen County, Ashland County, Auglaize County, Crawford County, Defiance County, Erie County, Fulton County, Hancock County, Hardin County, Henry County, Huron County, Lucas County, Marion County, Mercer County, Morrow County, Ottawa County, Paulding County, Putnam County, Richland County, Sandusky County, Seneca County, Van Wert County, Williams County, Wood County, Wyandot County.

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