Fired over FaceBook Posting? It Can Happen to You

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March 27, 2013

The New York Times ran an interesting article this week about an employee who was fired because of something she posted on her FaceBook page.  An emergency medical technician at American Medical Response of Connecticut was told she had violated the company policy that prevents employees from depicting the company on social media sites.  Additionally, it is thrown in that this was one reason for her termination and alluded that there were other reasons as well.  According to the post, 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.”

Without knowledge of what the other reasons for the termination were, and if we had a case where the disparaging remarks were the only issue, should this company have fired the employee?  Let’s assume that the company did a few steps before terminating.  Here are a few questions I’d like answered:

  • Did they use progressive discipline with the employee?
  • Was this the first time the employee violated a policy?
  • Is this policy violation serious enough to have termination as a consequence?

I think the bigger question for us and our organizations is, are we doing all we can to educate employees about using social media in a way that promotes professionalism? We’re not there yet.  Many instances like this can be avoided first and foremost if the supervisor is open to feedback on a daily basis.  Additionally, if the organization gives employees an outlet to let leadership know if there are issues brewing.  And, while a majority of employees do not use social media as a platform to bash colleagues, I would recommend that for those few who do, education and discussion should be a major component of dealing with the issue before termination is used.  After all, the whole point of social media is being able to communicate and network and by terminating employees on the spot, we’re flying in the face of the purpose.

What do you think?  Do you support terminating employees who vent about colleagues on social sites?  Or, do you agree with the National Labor Relations Board that employees in cases like this are being treated too harshly?  I’m anxious to hear your thoughts…..weigh in in the comment section….

18 Comments

  • While I don’t think that emploees should be barred from commenting about their work, the NLRB has a decidedly different air about it since the Obama administration came to town. Most of the decisions coming from this board are pro-employee and I think will continue to be so. Thus I have a hard time feeling the NLRB (stacked with ex-labor officials) is really impartial.

    • @Dave- I agree, don’t think the NLRB is impartial. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Thanks for commenting.

  • I think the same rules apply to online and offline behavior. What if your boss sat behind you in a cafe where you were blythely ranting about how much he or she sucked to a friend – would that be grounds for firing? If yes, then doing the same thing on FB certainly is. The medium shouldn’t matter, only the behavior.

    • @working girl- That’s a great point. I think more employers should think this way before reacting. Glad you weighed in!

  • We actually do training on how to use linkedin and other social media tools. Much of it is geared around sales but a lot of it is the approapriate and inappropriate use of it business or otherwise. Regardless I think the fact that we do it is a better head start then many companies!

    • @Benjamin- It sounds like your organization is one of them that is ahead of the curve. I’m a strong proponent of educating employees what TO say instead of just punishing when they say (or tweet, or share) something the organization deems unacceptable. Bravo!

  • It is silly for employees to complain about specific people online. But no I do not think firing is a good solution. Some people have bad judgement and need advice on various topics (different people often need coaching on different areas). We shouldn’t be leaping to firing as a solution for anything. Management should work with people we decided to hire and help them improve.

    Yes, I can imagine situations where it would be reasonable to fire, with a significantly egregious case or as you mention, showing the failure to be able to learn and improve. In general, though companies should address the issues causing people to act out, instead of focusing on suppression of acting out – which seems to be the go to response for many managers and companies.

    • @John- Thanks for commenting. I agree, employees should be smart enough by now to know that what you post online can and will be read. They should either use privacy settings or other measures to protect themselves. Or, just not speak ill of bosses. Either way, I believe it is the employee’s responsibility. It sounds like in this case there were other reasons.

  • If an employee would be written up or terminated for a comment made at the workplace, why should the result be any different if the statement is made on a social networking site. For example, if an employee used a racial epithet at work which might be grounds for a write-up or discharge under the employer’s policies, why should the result be any different because the same remark is published on the internet. It should not. Don’t read too much into the pro-union NLRB action. Ultimately, a Court will have to decide if the NLRB exceeded its legal authority.

    • @Russell- You’re right about that- if the employee would have been written up or terminated for writing that comment somewhere else, social media sites should not be different. It does sound like this was just some normal “venting” by an employee. Personally, I would have just counseled the employee. That is, unless this was just the final straw in a whole host of other bad choices in behavior in the workplace. Thanks for the comment!

  • I think it was interesting the back-pedaling the company did on her termination reason. In the beginning, it was because she violated their social media policy. As time went by, they started qualifying their action by saying things like – she would have been terminated anyway for her poor customer service and patient care. My question is this – if they were going to fire her anyway for those things, why didn’t they? Poor patient care is a much ‘easier’ termination than violating a social media policy.

  • Hmmm, this is a tough one because I think if a person is lacking common sense in this way and will rant on the internet about a co-worker, then they need to understand there are consequences to this behavior. I do not feel it’s an employer’s responsibility to coach people on common sense.

    I think a lot of it depends on what was said too. We know there are always 2 sides to every story — what if the employee was defaming a co-worker? In this case, the damage was already done and why bother with progressive discipline?

    Seriously, if someone does not think ahead before acting and realize the consequences of those actions, do you even want them working for you? What kind of judgment calls would they make on the job? If they’re doing this online, can you imagine the poison they’re spreading at work?

    I think these issues would have to be handled on a case by case basis, policy or not. While we may create avenues for problem resolution at work, we can’t force them to take advantage of those avenues.

    Doesn’t anyone listen to their mothers anymore…? “If you can’t say something nice…. “

    • @Kim- The more I read your writing (here and other sites) the more I think we’re alike in our thinking. In this case, I was left hungry to know what the rest of the story was. It will be interesting to hear how it ends. So glad you commented. Thanks

  • I completely agree with the two ladies. Focus on education and apply the same standards for on- and offline behavior.

    And although I don’t know the exact circumstances of this specific case, I would advise not to overreact. If an employee insulted me online (or offline), would I ask for their head?
    Come on, get serious…

    • @Etienne- My friend!!! So glad to see you commenting on my blog. It does seem rather harsh to me based on the limited info. Wonder if they also terminate people who make mean faces at each other! Thanks and be well!

  • Interesting thread. Perhaps the question comes down to whether or not the posting was public record. A letter to a friend is inherently different than a letter to the editor. Right?

    I’m also hearing a lot about this in the realm of pre-employment. Are people using social media to assess their candidates? If so, what are the advantages and risks?

    DK

    • @DK- I think based on what I’ve heard, it amounts to more the “personal letter” to a friend. Employees need the ability to vent to each other once in awhile. That should not be grounds for termination in my opinion. As far as pre-employment goes, there are a whole host of writers debating whether the risks outweigh the benefits of using it. I personally don’t, but I’m sure there are many recruiters out there who do. What do you think? Worth the risk?

Comments are closed.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.

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