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When an Employee’s Social Media Reveal an Enthusiasm for Marijuana, How Should This Retailer React?

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JANELLE AND TIM O’NEILL LOVED their hometown and took great pride in knowing that O’Neill’s Diamonds was one of few independent jewelers still operating in the area. In his role as marketing manager, the challenge of keeping up with strategies to attract the town’s millennial bridal customers while continuing to appeal to their long-established older customer base fell to Tim. After much conversation with industry colleagues and experts, he and Janelle decided to hire someone to handle the development and growth of O’Neill’s social media presence. Growth in the business had already created the need for additional help on the sales floor, so they chose to look for someone who could handle both jobs.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

They were fortunate enough to attract several qualified applicants for the position, including Grace Matthews, the 21 year-old recent college graduate daughter of a family friend. She was articulate, bright and eager to learn, and most importantly, she was totally familiar with building a presence with Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. Grace’s references checked out and she was brought on board.

Grace started strong. She was pleasant and personable on the sales floor, and she seemed to be learning quickly about the store’s products and services. She was also creative and enthusiastic working with the store’s social media. Her posts were generating interest within the first few weeks.

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About six weeks into Grace’s employment, Janelle held a store training meeting on the importance of demonstrating O’Neill’s core values — honesty, integrity, responsibility, professionalism and dedication to service — both inside and outside of the store.

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She knew they had been fortunate in that they’d never had an issue with an employee creating image problems in town, but she also believed that regular discussion of the topic was part of the reason for that.

The day after the meeting, Linda Weiss, one of the store’s more senior employees, asked to speak to Janelle in private. She said that her son knew Grace casually through friends, and that he’d come to her several weeks ago with concerns about Grace working in the store. He was concerned that her public presence reflected badly on the store, since everyone in town knew she worked there. Linda showed Janelle an Instagram post her son had brought to her attention — Grace’s personal page. From every indication, in her personal social media world, Grace was a stoner, posting regularly about all things marijuana-related, including notes about paraphernalia, varieties, qualities and suggestions for where and how to buy the product. Janelle thanked

Linda for bringing the matter to her attention.

Later that day, Janelle discussed the matter with Tim, and they agreed that neither had noticed any indication that Grace was ever high while at the store. They also looked through her personal pages carefully and were sure that she did not mention being an O’Neill’s employee anywhere. They agreed that despite the fact that times were changing, in their state, marijuana possession and use was still a criminal offense (misdemeanor or felony, depending on quantity), and that they really needed to take some kind of action.

The Big Questions

  • Since Grace’s discussions about marijuana were limited to her personal social media accounts (to which, technically, Janelle and Tim should not have had access), can the O’Neills take action based on the content of those pages?
  • In the bigger picture, does an employer have the right to monitor and/or regulate what an employee posts online if the content has nothing to do with the store and does not violate client or business confidentiality in any way?
  • In a small town where everyone knows everyone else, does the employee have an obligation to restrict public behavior on personal time to conform with the conduct policy of the business?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Sue F.
New York

From a legal standpoint, this is a tricky situation. State laws vary on employee rights outside of work time, so one answer may not be valid in every state.
Situations like this underscore the need for Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI). A good EPLI insurer provides access to free consultative services with attorneys who can provide practical information about topics such as this. Your insurer also should provide access to a Workplace Risk Solutions Website where you can research your state’s legal requirements, find model workplace policies and forms, tap into a library of workplace-related articles, and access web-based training on topics such as preventing discrimination and harassment, as well as other employment issues.

Deric M.
Oceanside, CA

Janelle and Tim are not in a difficult situation here. What constitutes a PR problem is how it is received and Grace isn’t attaching herself to the store with her pro-marijuana posts. Janelle and Tim never appeared to have even asked themselves if the marijuana consumption is recreational or medicinal — an important distinction — and more information is needed.
Since cannabis appears to be illegal in their state for recreational use, however, Janelle and Tim should have a chat with Grace to tone it down because of how it could become a PR problem. If Grace is otherwise a positive influence on the store’s traffic and bottom line, this is an easy matter to resolve.

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Joe K.
Lantzville, BC

First let me say that I am in Canada, and we have just legalized recreational use of marijuana for the entire country. I am also in British Columbia, where it has been said that pot is our largest cash crop. There is a right place and time to use pot and a wrong place and time; the same goes with alcohol consumption. I think monitoring your employee’s recreational behavior and online presence away from the workplace is a breach of her privacy. If she doesn’t come to work high or use pot at work, I don’t think there should be a problem, especially if she’s a competent asset and representative for the business. Having said that, we might be a little more lenient here, and attitudes toward marijuana will be quite different in the US Midwest.

Brenda R.
Honolulu

I would not want to be in that situation. There are risks involved with any kind of drugs, legal or otherwise. Does the company have a formal drug policy? One needs to know the local, state and federal laws and work policy to comply with. Was there a stated probation period to see if the employee “fits” with the requirements of dress, being on time, and client interaction? If there are red flags, the person may have to be let go.
What they do at home is their business and should never impact the requirements and expectations of the job they were hired for. Proceed with caution.

Stuart S.
Egg Harbor City, NJ

The employee needs to be taught how to transition from the fantasy fun land of college to the real world. As long as she is responsible and doing a great job, her personal life is not the store’s concern, but when her actions can potentially alienate any customers, it is. Any controversial posts need to be avoided and eliminated. The posts were obviously on her pages before being hired, so the potential repercussions were never considered. Teaching her about why they are no longer appropriate is more important than just having them eliminated. This is all about grooming her to be a valuable asset to the store, and just as importantly, teaching her to grow as a person!

Gabi M.
Tewksbury, MA

My family and I work in a small town, and I know we all watch what we put on our personal social media accounts (mostly political discussions) because we know that we represent our business 24/7. I think they simply just need to talk to Grace and tell her that her posts aren’t acceptable for someone who works for their business. It should be an easy solution, such as just making her accounts private to the public — and if she has a problem with it, then that’s a whole other underlying problem with having her as an employee.

Marcus M.
Midland, TX

This is a tricky one. Really, an employer should not be able to judge an employee about what they personally post, as long as it doesn’t mention the store, her profession or have violent content. But at the end of the day, she does reflect the store no matter what, and they do live in a small town, so people know where she works. They’ll judge your store as they judge a person’s social media. Maybe have a chat with her and just ask that she consider how her post will look on her career and see if that helps. She’s obviously not very conscious of how her post about pot looks, or maybe she really just doesn’t care, so either way, it’s a bit of a red flag for me. I don’t know … maybe she’s just still young and immature and needs a little guidance, and I think that’s acceptable to give out.

Jane H.
Highland Park, IL

It does reflect upon the credibility and integrity of the business. Unfortunately, it appears that anyone can do anything and it’s their right, blah blah blah. Since Grace was already hired and during the interview there was no discussion of “life outside the store,” it may become a situation they will need to accept until something happens. There are plenty of employers that check out a potential employee’s social media posts (when possible) for any red flags, and in my opinion, this would influence the decision to hire or not. The jewelry business is based on trust and honesty, especially an independent brick and mortar store. One incident would be tough to overcome for the store’s reputation.

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Also, unless you know the personality of someone when they’re “high” or not, the only way you might find out is from someone’s observation. If Grace is “selling,” you are giving her a ready-made customer base. Sorry if I sound extreme and tough, but it’s hard work and devotion to stay in the jewelry business. Grace should go.

Jim D.
Kingston, NH

Obviously an employee who engages in criminal activity would quickly become a former employee. While I know there are those who condone drug use, excuse it and work to decriminalize it, it is still illegal. A jeweler’s reputation is a precious thing and needs to be protected. How many repair clients would want to hand over their treasures to a known criminal? If followers of her social media start hanging around, it could lower the tone of the store, possibly bringing in undesirable elements. Worst case would be a front-page newspaper picture of an employee being taken away in handcuffs and your store-front in the background, after she sells some pot to an undercover police officer.

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Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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