Gov Careers

By Phil Piemonte

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Twitter, Facebook … and your right to post as you see fit

The once-bright line between public and private speech gets fuzzier every day—and in the federal workplace, GSA employees are walking point for the rest of us.

Last July, GSA management launched new rules on employee use of social media. Since then, employees who are clearly GSA staff  have been warned: You must “ensure your profile and related content (even if it is of a personal and not an official nature) is consistent with how you wish to present yourself as a GSA professional.”

The National Federation of Federal Employees and the agency are again in negotiations over the union’s push to ease the rule. The union’s chief negotiator, Charles Paidock, frames the government’s attempt to control off-hours employee use of social media as a misbegotten power play—an unjustified extension of management’s traditional concerns over employees who act as unauthorized sources to newspaper journalists.

And although Paidock said he was “hopeful” about reaching some compromise, he added, “I don’t know what [GSA] can give me that would get me to give away the right to free speech.”

What do you think? Is the GSA rule on social media too stringent? Should the agency back away from regulating what employees post in their free time to widely viewed sites? Or do you think the rules are reasonable?

Posted by Nathan Abse on Jul 30, 2010 at 12:13 PM


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Reader comments

Tue, Aug 3, 2010

i think the farthest any agency of the federal gov't should be allowed to go is to simply remind its employees that they should consider carefully whether identifying themselves as an employee of the federal gov't is necessary or appropriate. if they choose to do so they should be made aware that others may perceive their communication as official agency policy and should duly consider that before posting. certainly no employee should be allowed to use official agency logos (as profile pics for instance) or divulge sensitive information about the agency or any employee of the agency. the decision of what to post ultimately should reside with the individual (not with the agency) so long as employees remain informed about the potential consequences of their actions. "Think before you post" should be the guideline, which i believe is a reasonable balance for both agency and employee.

Tue, Aug 3, 2010 Jonathan Abolins

If the GSA social media policy is the one at http://www.gsa.gov/graphics/staffoffices/socialmediapolicy.pdf , there's more to the section in question than mentioned in the blog post. The text of the section 5.g from the above document: --- g. Be aware of your GSA association in online social networks. If you identify yourself as a GSA employee or have a public facing position for which your GSA association is known to the general public, ensure your profile and related content (even if it is of a personal and not an official nature) is consistent with how you wish to present yourself as a GSA professional, appropriate with the public trust associated with your position, and conforms to existing standards, such as Standards of ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch. Have no expectation of privacy. --- It does not apply to all GSA employees' outside of work social media use. If the off-duty employee does not identify him/herself as a GSA employee AND the employee would not be publicly associate with the GSA -- e.g., not a spokesperson, higher level manager, etc --, then there are no real restrictions.

Tue, Aug 3, 2010 Jose

It is clear that portraying yourself as a professional at every level of your life is important, but the right to express your beliefs should not be added as a catch 22 to the rules impose to you as a federal employee. That is where management will always fail, we still are individuals and citizens, and never have given up our right to express our opinions and beliefs even if they are contrary to current policy. And as long as I don't bring these expressions to the work place I am entitled to express them in any public forum.

Tue, Aug 3, 2010 Dave K

This is a funny debate, but one that would only take place in 21st century America! "You must 'ensure your profile and related content (even if it is of a personal and not an official nature) is consistent with how you wish to present yourself as a GSA professional.'" Take out "GSA" and read it to yourself again. NO DUH! Self-help and business books abound, and the topic of "personal branding" is nothing new! Whether your employer brings it up or not, those "girls gone wild" pictures of you (male or female) from spring break back in college (or last weekend's block party!) don't lend themselves to the look of a profession. Like it or not, you're under the microscope! If you don't want your employer seeing your pages, don't friend anyone from your company, and tighten your permissions to allow ONLY your friends to see your profile!

Tue, Aug 3, 2010 Donner

As citizens, there are limits to our freedom of speech (like not shouting fire in a crowded theater ~unless there is a fire) and there are even more limits put upon us when we take on positions of responsibility. When working for the tax payers, whether it's the military, civil service, or law enforcement, it means that we carry additional restrictions that are due strictly to what I call being a part of the public trust. In any event, lines are drawn that govern our behavior. We chose to cross them at our own peril. But when there is a need to nudge a line (one way or the other), we also have systems in place to deal with it. These include our elected representatives, courts, unions, managements, and the discretionary actions of individuals who choose to test these boundaries. As a civil servant, the Hatch Act guides (some would argue restricts) how we are to relate to the public on various political subjects (including running for office ourselves) and these types of things are enforceable by law. Clearly these laws impose additional restrictions on our freedom of speech. But that does not make them wrong. The fact that a Federal Agency is attempting to impose further restrictions about social network commentary for its employee’s off-hours activity is not surprising. Even the Hatch Act does that. The difficulty will be for those who suffer the consequences until the matter is resolved by law and fully tested through the courts. In this matter, it is no different than it was for those brave souls who did battle with their employer prior to the establishments of protections against reprisals; in my view it is unlikely that this problem will go away quietly and it could well lead to something like the whistle blower protection act.

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