December 2010 Archives

December 13, 2010

Linking to WikiLeaks Could Cost You a Job, Universities Warn Students

Last week, the federal government warned its employees that the trove of diplomatic cables and other intelligence documents posted on WikiLeaks are still considered classified until they are officially declassified by an appropriate government agency. Employees and contractors who do business with the federal government were told that accessing this information on their work computers, personal computers, or portable devices was forbidden. When asked whether this meant employees would be fired for viewing the documents, a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ominously told CNN that such "breaches of protocols governing access to classified material are subject to applicable sanctions under long-standing and existing law."

The OMB warning didn't tell agencies to block employee access to the WikiLeaks site or other sites that posted the documents. But the Library of Congress did so anyway: Neither its employees nor its patrons may access the WikiLeaks site, according to the New York Times

Now, the warning has been extended to those who aren't federal employees or contractors, but one day hope to be: Students at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, for example, were sent an email message from the career counseling office, informing that that an alumnus working in the State Department recommended "that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government." (Check the whole message out here.) According to CNN, students at Georgetown and Boston University received similar messages.

These warnings have led to a lot of lively online discussion about free speech and the importance of allowing open debate of ideas, particularly in an academic setting. They've also led to some talk about how private employers might treat the same issue, particularly whether an employer might be legally justified in firing or refusing to hire someone who posted links to WikiLeaks or supported the group's policies on social networking sites. 

My two cents is that even though such a rule might be legal, it's tough to see why a company would want to go this route, given the resulting bad publicity and poor morale that would almost certainly result. Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment protects us from governmental action or restriction only: It doesn't prohibit private employers from putting limits on speech. Other laws might, however. As I posted recently, the NLRB has said that private employers can't restrict employees from communicating with each other about the terms and conditions of employment, even if that communication takes place on a public website. And some states prohibit employers from taking action against employees based on their political beliefs, or on any legal activities they choose to engage in during their private time. In these states, a "no posting about WikiLeaks" rule wouldn't pass legal muster.  

December 3, 2010

OSHA Says Texting While Driving Is a Workplace Hazard

Texting while driving has emerged recently as a major public safety issue. Just a few years ago, only a handful of states banned the practice. Now, more than half of the states prohibit all drivers from texting while driving; some states impose a ban only on certain drivers (younger drivers or bus drivers, for example; you can find a frequently updated chart of state laws on texting and using cell phones while driving here, at the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures). 

And it's no wonder why: According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, texting while driving increases the risk of a crash or accident by 23 times, a much greater danger than any of the other activities studied (such as dialing or using a cell phone). Texting resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for the longest period as well. How long? Long enough to travel the length of a football field at 55 mph, according to the study. (Check it out here.) 

Recently, OSHA decided that enough facts were in to officially declare texting while driving a workplace hazard and an OSHA violation. On its new "Distracted Driving" page, OSHA tells employers that requiring, encouraging, or condoning texting while driving for work is prohibited:
"It is your responsibility and legal obligation to create and maintain a safe and healthful workplace, and that would include having a clear, unequivocal and enforced policy against the hazard of texting while driving. Companies are in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act if, by policy or practice, they require texting while driving, or create incentives that encourage or condone it, or they structure work so that texting is a practical necessity for workers to carry out their job."

The agency goes on to tell employers that it will investigate complaints that an employer requires or encourages texting while driving, and will issue citations and impose penalties on those who fail to comply. 

And now a word from our shameless commerce division: If your company is searching for one of those "clear, unequivocal" policies prohibiting texting while driving, pick up a copy of my book, Smart Policies for Workplace Technologies.