EMS hiring and firing in the social media age

Use a comprehensive social media policy to set expectations for appropriate social media use on duty and off the job


Social media provides endless opportunities to keep in touch and share our lives with others. However, it also poses risks and challenges for EMS employers when it comes to procedures and protocols for hiring and firing.

Before you hire: Screen applicants using social media
Many employers check applicants’ social media profiles when evaluating job candidates. While this practice may provide you with useful information, it is important to be sure that everyone involved in the hiring process understands the limitations.

Notify job applicants on the application that you may check social media sites and other Internet outlets as part of your background check process. This lets potential employees know up front that you will be monitoring their social media activity. Keep in mind, that while considering an applicant’s public profile is acceptable, many states prohibit you from requiring an applicant to provide information that isn’t publically available, such as requesting personal log in information.

Using social media as part of the hiring process often provides you with information about a candidate that is off-limits on an employment application such as race, age, religion and gender. It is against the law to refuse to hire someone simply because they have one of these or other protected characteristics.

During employment: Provide guidance with a social media policy
It is critically important to set expectations for all employees through a comprehensive social media policy. When it comes to social networking, any and all patient information should be strictly off-limits. Your organization has a legal and ethical duty to protect the legitimate business interests of your agency, the privacy of your patients’ information, and to ensure that social media use does not interfere with the work of others.

A social media policy can protect both the organization and workforce members from unnecessary liability for things like HIPAA violations or defamation or invasion of privacy claims. Your social media policy should clearly communicate to your workforce that their social media activities are not off-limits where the agency has a legitimate business interest to protect — whether those activities occur during business hours or off hours.

During business hours, employers have the absolute right to restrict employees from engaging in any conduct that is not part of their work duties during that time, including using personal smartphones and accessing social networking applications. However, restrictions on social media should be in line with other restrictions when it comes to downtime. If employees are on break or between calls and allowed to make personal phone calls or watch TV then they should be allowed to use personal devices to access social media. But even during breaks and downtime, employers can prohibit employees from accessing social media using company devices.

Even when employees are off the clock, they are still required to abide by the social media policy. Employees cannot post proprietary information about the agency or violate HIPAA by posting confidential or protected information about patients. Employees also cannot make false, defamatory or harassing comments about other employees or supervisors. 

Keep in mind, employees may have certain rights under federal labor laws to post comments that might be critical of the organization when speaking about working conditions. But they don’t have the right to post content about your organization that is false, malicious, indefensibly disloyal or could harm the agency’s business interests. As such, your policy can generally prohibit the dissemination of such false and malicious content on social media sites.

Your policy should also remind employees that if they identify themselves on social media as an employee of your organization or have pictures of themselves in uniform or by an ambulance that their comments could expose the organization to liability. Remind employees to think about the impact their statements could have on the agency before posting to avoid situations like the firefighter who was fired for praising the South Carolina gunman on Facebook or the firefighter accused of making a racially charged comment.

Ending employment: Enforce consequences for policy violations
Your company's social media policy should include clear consequences for failure to comply. The policy cannot be successfully implemented if it is not enforced through discipline. 

When deciding whether to take disciplinary action or terminate an employee for a social media post, first evaluate whether there is a legitimate business interest at stake by asking:

  • Why are we concerned with this behavior and does it actually affect the organization?
  • Does the conduct violate a law or an agency policy?

When there is a legitimate business interest at stake, ensure that the action taken against the employee is consistent with past practices in similar circumstances. Also be aware that your agency may need to take additional actions, such as notifying patients if protected information was improperly shared.

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