Off-duty comments in podcast spell trouble for employee: Ask HR

Depending on the rules your company may have in place, an employee's off-duty comments could be in violation of policies. (Photo: SDI Productions / E+ via Getty Images)

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: I work for a city government, but I also run my own business as a podcaster. (I have a disclaimer on my website and all of my videos.) A co-worker heard something I said during one of my podcasts, assumed I was talking about that person and complained to my employer. After being reprimanded by HR, I was suspended for five days without pay along with other disciplinary actions. Can they do that?

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: Thanks for writing. The short answer is – it depends. To know for sure, I would first determine what laws and company policies, if any, exist to help clarify whether your conduct warrants the disciplinary actions taken by your employer.

Does your employer have a policy that forbids holding another job? If so, your podcast may be in violation. There could also be a separate policy prohibiting you from running a competing business. If your podcast falls into this category, your employer may have a case.

While I can’t speak to what you said on your podcast, I would take a closer look at the content you shared and how you created the episode in question. If you used company time or equipment, or if you shared stories about what happens at work or disclosed proprietary information or intellectual property, this could very well put you in jeopardy. It all goes back to those critical policies your employer may have in place around these kinds of scenarios.

However, in some states, employers may not be able to discipline employees for lawful off-duty conduct. If that’s not the case, your employer may have the right to act, particularly if it affects the organization’s brand. 

You also mentioned you were suspended without pay. It’s important to note some states and cities have laws pertaining to suspension of work without pay. I strongly recommend reviewing your employee handbook or contact the Department of Labor to see if any of these laws impact you.

If you’re not in violation of any policy, employment agreement, or contract, and you didn’t discuss the company or the person as claimed, then you may be in the clear. This is especially true if your organization didn’t complete a thorough and unbiased investigation to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. 

I hope this helps clarify some of your concerns – good luck!

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Q: I am venturing into a new career path in HR. I have an MBA, and I have done some administrative and HR duties in my current and previous jobs. How do I make an easy transition without starting at the basic ground level, and how can I get recruiters and companies to notice me?

Taylor: Transitioning to a new career path is never easy, and I applaud you for boldly making a change you feel will best suit you.

However, I don’t believe you have to start from the basic ground level at all! Given your education and relevant job experience, you’re well-positioned to make a successful transition to a career in HR.

I would start by taking an honest inventory of your own knowledge, skills, and abilities as it relates to HR jobs you’re interested in. Then, take a close look at job descriptions for positions you are interested in. Make sure your résumé reflects how your skills, education, abilities, and past job experiences make you an asset for a particular role or team.

If you feel comfortable, have an open conversation with your people manager. Explain you are interested in having more HR-related responsibilities and ask if there are more tasks you can take on to gain more experience in this area. You can further clarify why you’re interested in HR, and what functions are most appealing to you. Your employer may even be willing to cross-train you or connect you with a mentor on the HR team.

I would also consider taking a few HR courses and working toward certification. To boost your network, consider joining your local HR professional chapter and attend any virtual meetings.

This will not only provide you with tools and resources to bolster your knowledge and help recruiters notice you but will also open your network so you can engage with other HR professionals in the area – leading to potential new opportunities and job offers.

Best of luck in your career transition!

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