Posted November 9, 2010 9:05 am by with 4 comments

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We talk a lot here at Marketing Pilgrim about how what you say or do online can impact your business or career. In fact, someone even wrote a book about that kind of thing. Since this is such a growth area in the online space you can almost sit back and wait for the next level to be reached because people are screwing up online in droves on a daily basis and of course, where there is stupidity, there are lawyers.

The New York Times reports on a landmark case that is going to the next level as the National Labor Relations Board climbs into the ring over an alleged firing of an EMT regarding Facebook posts about their supervisor

In what labor officials and lawyers view as a ground-breaking case involving workers and social media, the National Labor Relations Board has accused a company of illegally firing an employee after she criticized her supervisor on her Facebook page.

This is the first case in which the labor board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally a protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.

The labor relations board announced last week that it had filed a complaint against an ambulance service, American Medical Response of Connecticut, that fired an emergency medical technician, accusing her, among other things, of violating a policy that bars employees from depicting the company “in any way” on Facebook or other social media sites in which they post pictures of themselves.

Ok class, repeat after me “No matter what the courts say, don’t ever do anything in your online life that could come back to bite you in the behind!”. Sure there will be plenty of harping about how this activity is to be protected blah, blah, blah. At the end of the day, it requires a little self-control and self-monitoring for people to realize that even though the courts may find it legal to do so, you just don’t say stupid stuff in your online life. Even if you keep your job it still impacts you so why do it?

The larger implications of this case could be around the policy that the company had in place for social media that will be argued as too restrictive.

The labor board said the company’s Facebook rule was “overly broad” and improperly limited employees’ rights to discuss working conditions among themselves.

Moreover, the board faulted another company policy, one prohibiting employees from making “disparaging” or “discriminatory” “comments when discussing the company or the employee’s superiors” and “co-workers.”

In essence the employee had a beef with her supervisor then took her complaints to her Facebook page where other employees chimed in. For the record, she called her supervisor a “17” which is an EMT code referring to a psych patient or issue. This then became a concerted effort (in other words not just a solo rant) and as a result became protected because co-workers are allowed to talk amongst themselves about their work.

This stuff turns real grey real quick though because if a mention about that supervisor can be seen as stepping outside the lines of work related issues then the protections could go away. In a rather disturbing scenario the NYT says

But employees might cross the line into unprotected territory if they disparage supervisors over something unrelated to work — for instance, a supervisor’s sexual performance — or if their statements are disloyal.

Whoa! Hey if you are having sexual relations with your supervisor breaking the company social media rules are the least of your worries!

At any rate, this case will be worth keeping an eye on because the implications of any precedent setting ruling can run far and wide. As a result, all businesses need to be on top of this kind of legal assessment of just what activities warrant action from a company or just need to be left alone for fear of legal backlash.

Let’s face it, most things in this world are unsafe for many people because lawyers like to sue people so they can make a living. It’s a matter of just how well versed the business community stays on this subject that will determine just how close any business is to a lawsuit at any given moment.

Your thoughts?

  • Ann Williams

    I like “think incite” articles like this. You are absolutely right on about people taking responsibility for what they say in a public forum and to THINK before biting the hand that feeds you. The government is far too involved in our daily lives as it is, regulating the “character” of a business and its practice to protect itself from disgruntled employees goes over the line. The business has every right to put a stop to the crack in the foundation of its enterprise before it spreads. The EMT has tainted herself and has made herself unemployable and she needs to take her lumps, grow up, apologize and learn from her mistakes. The NLRB has no business whatsoever interfering in such a situation.

    In a more perfect world, we would de-fund them, too! 😉

  • Its quite interesting that people can do such stupid things and then cry foul when the axe comes down on them.There is also a worrying development ,where partners who breakup or divorce are using social networks to diss their partners.Some even say the most intimate stuff online. I consider people who step off the line as mentally disturbed.

  • Larry Lane

    Companies should only be concerned about what employees do while they are on the clock. Once that employee is no longer on the employer’s property and not on the clock, what they do is their own business-not their employer’s.

    What kind of Orwellian 1984 society are we living in where your boss can tell you what you can do in the privacy of your own house, on your own computer, on your own webpage? What did this person do at work while they were on the clock to get fired? Nothing!

    Employers that fire employees for things that they do off the clock in the privacy of their own home, and when that employee is an excellent worker, not only hurt the company by getting rid of good workers, they also have to pay that former employee unemployment benefits because the former employee did nothing wrong to get fired for while they were on the clock and on the employer’s property.

    Employers need to not give employees reasons to complain. these people have a right to speak.

    • Ann Williams

      You make a point. Not a very valid one, but a point nonetheless. Your boss shouldn’t be able to tell you what you can do in the privacy of your own home, on your own computer, but on your own webpage in a public forum? No way. Another point you emphasized was the “excellent worker” thing. IF the employee was an excellent worker, it’s highly doubtful that she would have been reprimanded by her boss in the first place. An excellent worker would have no desire to beat up the company she works for as she would have a clue that its continuing success is her continuing paycheck. An excellent worker would know that she had legitimate avenues to take to file a grievance if her claim against the “17” supervisor was valid. She, nor any other employee is entitled to special rights anymore than any employer.