Employees are permitted to discuss the conditions of their employment with co-workers - in the break room, in the parking lot or on Facebook. That was the National Labor Relations Board's basic position involving an unfair labor practices case the agency brought against an employer.
The backstory: A worker, at home, on Facebook, posted derogatory comments about a supervisor. Co-workers read the post, liked it, and added barbs. The employer fired the original author for violating a company policy that barred employees from depicting the company "in any way" on social media. But the labor relations board said that the policy was too broad and that it infringed on the rights of workers - union and non-union - to engage in "protected concerted activities."
In settling the case, the employer agreed to narrow its policy so it did not restrict employees from discussing wages, hours, and working conditions with co-workers and others while not at work. Employment law attorney Shelly Freeman recently warned people at the Heartland Labor and Employment Law Conference in Overland Park, Kansas, that case law and regulatory opinions are building more slowly than the social media use they are trying to control.
In most workplaces, employees are “at will." Therefore, texting or tweeting workers can be fired simply because the boss does not think a post reflects well on the company or the individual.
Lawyers and government agencies will successfully object if the firings violate laws governing discrimination, harassment, or other legal protections, such as the "concerted activities" cited in the above Facebook case.
But if and until the law catches up with social media use, any worker concerned with job security, and any employer concerned with protecting an image online, should make sure they're on the same page. Organizations need a social media policy that is specific and updated, and employees should know exactly what it says.
Photo credit: Microsoft