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Legal Insider: Social media tips for federal employees

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By Melissa L. Watkins, Esq.

Social media has a very long half-life, possibly longer than radioactive material.

As a federal employee, you are subject to certain limitations regarding your social media activity. There are five basic rules you should keep in mind as you engage with social media:

  1. Don’t: Use Personal Social Media During the Workday
  2. Don’t: Give the Impression You Are Posting in An Official Capacity
  3. Don’t: Share Non-public Information.
  4. Don’t: Violate the Hatch Act
  5. Don’t: Post Content that Could Raise a Security Concern

These rules will help you to avoid violations of the Federal Government Standards of Conduct and the Hatch Act.

The Federal Government Standards of Conduct do not prohibit federal employees from establishing and maintaining personal social media accounts. However, employees must ensure that their social media activities comply with the Standards and other applicable laws, including agency supplemental regulations and agency-specific policies.

When federal employees are on-duty, the Standards of Conduct require that they use official time in an honest effort to perform official duties, and that they use government property only to perform official duties, unless they are authorized to use government property for other purposes. Where agencies have established policies permitting limited personal use of government resources by their employees, those policies may authorize employees to access their personal social media accounts while on duty.

However, you should keep in mind that there is no right to privacy on work devices. If you do use your work device, whether desktop computer or mobile phone, to access personal accounts, understand that your activity may be monitored by the agency. The Standards of Conduct also prohibit employees from using their official titles, positions, or any authority associated with their public offices for private gain.

In addition to rules arising from the Federal Government Standards of Conduct, federal employees are also prohibited from engaging in certain activities on social media due to the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from sending messages through social media that advocate for a political party or candidate for partisan public office while on duty or in a federal building. Engaging in such activity may subject federal employees to disciplinary action.

There are three general prohibitions under the Hatch Act that apply to all federal employees:

  1. Employees may not engage in political activity while on duty or in the federal workplace.
  2. Employees may not knowingly solicit, accept, or receive a political contribution for a political party, candidate in a partisan race, or partisan political group at any time.
  3. Employees may not use their official authority or influence to affect the outcome of an election.

Beyond the rules established by the Federal Government Standards of Conduct and the Hatch Act, federal employees, contractors and applicants should also be mindful of the impact that social media can have on possessing or applying for a security clearance.

Federal agencies may also consider publicly available social media information in connection with an application for a security clearance. While the government has been quick to point out it has not yet created a good process for ‘checking’ social media in the background investigations process, the government has been clear that publicly available social media information may be a part of the government’s continuous evaluation process. It is advisable to change your privacy settings to “friends and family only” and to not accept new friend requests from people who you don’t know.

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