Every day developers and businesses are launching new social media platforms and apps, or making changes to the social media sites that have become part of our daily lives.  One thing that will never change with social media, is the need to be smart about how you protect your company, your employees and yourself while using it.

Even if your company does not have official social media accounts, it’s likely that most of your staff does. Nearly every social media platform encourages users to share their employer’s name. And, whether they’ve had a good day or a bad day at work, your staff may make postings about their job.

Firing an Employee for Social Media Use

I’m often asked whether employers can discipline and even fire staff for their social media posts, and whether the employer should fear being sued for doing so.

We can look at a few recent court cases for great examples to guide us through the gray areas where employment law meets social media.  And in some respects, these areas are starting to get a little less gray.

Last year in Connecticut, an employee named Souza criticized her supervisor on Facebook by using terms that were sometimes vulgar, and claiming that the supervisor was mentally unstable. The employer, AMR, fired Souza.

AMR had already prepared a social media policy for its employees to follow, and Souza’s online comments had definitely violated it.  Good for AMR, right?  Not really.  AMR’s employees were unionized, and the federal agency that oversees union employment matters thought that the firing was too heavy-handed.

The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against AMR, saying that Souza’s firing violated federal labor law’s requirements that union employees be allowed to talk about working conditions and criticize bosses. The NLRB believes that this requirement applies on Facebook just as it does anywhere else.

The case settled earlier this year.  And AMR changed their social media policy to allow employees to discuss wages, hours, and working conditions.  And just as NLRB was settling the Souza case, they initiated a case against a Connecticut bus company for simply maintaining an overbroad social media policy.

Here is the helpful part for the rest of us:  The NLRB recently published a report about that federal agency’s opinions and suggestions of how to craft a sensible social media policy that is less likely to violate the collective rights of employees.  Even for employers whose workforces do not include union members, it contains some helpful guidance and food for thought, and is worth a read.

By now, every company should have a social media policy in place, and employees should be trained on how to follow it.  But as the Souza/AMR case the the NLRB report point out, simply adopting any old social media policy is not a great idea.  The type of business, its culture, and its unique aspects should be factored in to the policy. It’s up to each business to decide what can be tolerated and the adverse actions that can be taken when employees send the “wrong” messages.  Employers are regulated in many ways, even where they are not in contact with the NLRB.  One social media policy certainly does not fit all.

Souza’s case is not that unusual. The number of cases of Facebook firings and Twitter terminations is growing all the time. Employers as diverse as restaurants, hospitals, professional sports teams, grocery stores, and insurance companies have all fired workers because of online commentary.  And those are just the examples that have made the news.

It’s the responsibility of companies to create a policy that explains to employees what is acceptable.  Then they should train their people on the rules of the road, before problems arise.

Three Simples Steps for Employers

  1. Think about where the lines should be drawn for your business
  2. Draw them in a policy that is easy to understand, and consistent with labor guidelines that may apply
  3. Communicate that to your people

And, as an employee, it is ultimately your responsibility to manage your online reputation, know your rights and protect your employment.

Four Simple Steps for Employees

  1. Forget the “privacy” settings and assume it’s public
  2. Think before you post
  3. Google your name (and your city if it’s a fairly common name) to see what others see
  4. Take down anything you wouldn’t want a potential employer or your mom to know

Getting your house in order by drafting your social media policy and educating your employees on it (if the policy is not widely known it will be widely ignored) is well worth the effort.  Contact your social media experts, or reach out to Threshold.  We can help.