So after my post a couple weeks ago about why it is bad in a legal sense to have a restrictive social media policy, I am sure some of you have been wondering under what circumstances you can actually discipline someone for what they post online.
Well thanks to a piece on Forbes website, we have an answer (and hat tip to Gene Takagi)
As I had mentioned in my earlier entry, you can’t forbid, and therefore punish, any attempt to organize employees in a discussion about employment conditions. Under labor law, this is termed “protected concerted activity.” If a person is speaking for a group of employees or attempting to organize a discussion among employees, it is protected.
However, there are some tricky nuances to this and a link on the Forbes article to a National Labor Relations Board report, “Report Concerning Social Media Cases,” delves into the matter and presents specific cases to explain why the employee was or was not protected by the law. As Kashmir Hill, the author of the Forbes article notes, it is actually pretty easy and interesting to read for a government document.
My read is that with the current state of social media it may be fairly difficult to fire someone for complaining about work conditions. Essentially, if other employees chime in either on or off line to agree that an employer is a jerk for making employees work under certain conditions, the speech is protected as representing a group complaint. If other employees just comment that they are sorry to hear a situation upset the poster, then the poster may not be speaking on behalf of other employees.
It is only when a comment passes a certain threshold where a person is wishing violence upon people or making statements which are maliciously false that protection of representing a group complaint may not apply. However, being called a power-hungry, martinet jackass does not meet the standard for maliciously false. Suggesting a restaurant buys rat dropping to make their ground beef go further probably would.
Complaints that are clearly representative of an individual’s opinion aren’t protected, especially if they do not invite or receive the agreement of other employees. The same with complaints about the job which are not terms and conditions of employment like saying your store gets the ugliest customers in town.
One interesting fact that came up in a number of the NLRB case studies is that you can not have a blanket policy prohibiting people from posting pictures of themselves in company uniform or in connection with the company logo. ”
“…Employer’s logos or photographs of the Employer’s stores would restrain an employee from engaging in protected activity. For example, an employee could not post pictures of employees carrying a picket sign depicting the Employer’s name, peacefully handbill in front of a store, or wear a t-shirt portraying the Employer’s logo in connection with a protest involving terms and conditions of employment.”
The NLRB documents didn’t say it outright, but presumably you could fire someone if they posted a picture of themselves drunk in uniform at a strip club or urinating on your corporate logo. Though I have no idea if a number of employees urinating would be considered a group cause or not.
Another part of the NRLB document I found useful was two case studies starting on page 19 that first discussed a company’s social media policy that they considered to be too broad. In the second case, they found the policy was lawful but the other prohibitions were too broad. Finally, there was a case where a company’s policy restricting employees’ contact with the media was deemed lawful.
I felt all three were very useful because they all contained rules that any of us might include in our policies. In the first two cases, it is good to know what types of language one should keep out of policies. The last case included restrictions on media contact out of a desire to have one voice speak for the organization. Again, a situation for which many organizations strive.
“…we determined that a policy that stated that “the company will respond to the news media in a timely and professional manner only through the designated spokespersons” could not be read as “a blanket prohibition” against all employee contact with the media. Additional language in the rule referring to “crisis situations” and ensuring “timely and professional” response to media inquiries further clarified that the rule was not meant to apply to Section 7 activities.
Similarly, we concluded here that the Employer’s media policy repeatedly stated that the purpose of the policy was to ensure that only one person spoke for the company. Although employees were instructed to answer all media/reporter questions in a particular way, the required responses did not convey the impression that employees could not speak out on their terms and conditions of employment.”