Bosses Beware: Facebook Rants Not Necessarily Cause for Firing

Growing up in the journalism world, professors and editors alike wisely taught me not to forget that “e-mail” means “ever-mail.”

Don’t “reply all” in mixed company, don’t write a co-worker about your wild Friday night lest it be forwarded to your teetotaler boss and don’t ever, ever, ever leave a papertrail complaining about your job.

In today’s social media world of over-sharing, it’s far easier and more tempting to dump on your boss.

But bosses beware: You might not have the upper hand to fire an employee even over the most seemingly egregious of violations.

An Ontario, Oregon women recently lost her job when her employer, Oregon Natural Market, considered her Facebook rants slanderous.

Her defense: “I didn’t say their names, I didn’t say the name of the store, I didn’t say any specifics about what was happening or going on, I was just saying, I am frustrated with work.”

A child’s answer.

But apparently, she could have thrown the kitchen sink of vulgar rants, much like another woman who recently took to Facebook ranting with an assortment of expletives, and said “she was done with being a good employee” when she received an unwelcome job transfer.

Both were rightfully fired, or so their employers thought.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that the potty-mouthed woman was “unlawfully terminated.”

“But Erica,” you say, “she used fowl language and complained about her company publicly. F-i-r-e-d!”

Nope. The NLRB determined the business’s policy prohibiting “disparaging comments about the company through any media” went too far.

As a public relations consultant, every detail of these cases make me sweat and the ensuing glee from ambulance chasers doesn’t make me feel much better.

In fact, a similar ruling prompted one law firm to send out a notice to its clients saying “All private sector employers should take note,” regardless “of whether their work force is represented by a union.”

In expanding its reach beyond unions, the NLRB’s acting general counsel issued a report on social media issues on January 24, 2012, outlining 14 cases in which it interprets both the language of social media policies and specific disciplinary situations.

Such a clamp down could cause employers to overreact, which would also be a mistake. Employees do have protected grievance rights.

Plus, employees are your greatest brand ambassadors and their freedom to brag happily about your company sends a great message to your customers.

So, where’s the balance?

Two smart cookies in corporate law broke down the most concerning of NLRB policies and some recommendations on reducing the risk of violation in section 7-protected activity including general disclaimer language that indicate that section 7 rights are not being violated.

But in general, the court rulings stipulate that employees are allowed to talk about supervisors with co-workers and communicate related concerns and criticisms – even on Facebook. The courts draw the line when workers’ statements are not supported by facts and found to be defamatory.

Is your company protected? If not, a chat with key strategists, such as a new media lawyer and your public relations consultants, might not be such a bad thing.

Whatever your counsel and direction, it’s crucial to include your employees in open and frank discussions about whatever policies are or could be instituted.

Hopefully, such rulings force employers and employees to reconnect in person to air and solve problems the old-fashioned pre-social media way.

Erica Holloway is the principal of Galvanized Strategies, a public relations firm in San Diego. Contact her at erica (at) galvanizedstrategies.com.

 

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