A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling suggests companies cannot fire employees for things like complaining about their boss on Facebook. This ruling was in regard to a recent case regarding an employee of American Medical Response (AMR) of Connecticut. The case has yet to be fully adjudicated, however.
The employee posted a negative remark about her supervisor on her Facebook page, a remark that drew supportive responses from co-workers. AMR said the postings violated its Internet policies, but an NLRB investigation ruled the postings constituted "protected concerted activity" (activity for the mutual aid and protection of employees, like discussions about wages or working conditions). The company is saying that derogatory remarks about a supervisor do not constitute concerted activity.
The issue at hand was that the company's Internet posting policy was too broad. Legal experts are recommending that companies who don't want to be in this same boat should have wording that specifies disciplinary action if the postings related to the company are discriminatory, abusive, insulting, or false. This will be an interesting case to watch.
We all have strong feelings about our freedom to say what we want. No one wants to live in a society where you can't say anything for fear of repercussions. In this woman's mind, she was sharing a thought the same way she would have if she'd been having a conversation at a restaurant with a friend. What if that restaurant conversation were overheard by someone at the next table who happened to be the brother of her boss? Could she still have been fired?
I think the issue is that people need to come to grips with the far-reaching effects of social media. If you think you that you can share something with 700 of your closest friends via Facebook and that none of is going to spread outside your immediate circle, then you're sadly mistaken.
Another thing is I think a lot of people use Facebook as a passive/aggressive tool. It goes like this: If I don't have the nerve to criticize you to your face, then I'll post some thinly veiled remark about you on Facebook. You'll read it, get offended and say something back. Then, I can swear I wasn't talking about you. You might eventually believe me, but the point has been made. (No, I've never done this but I've seen some crazy stuff just by following a thread on friends of friends Facebook pages.)
The other thing is if this case is upheld and she gets her job back and she is free to snipe at the boss all she wants, what kind of atmosphere can she expect to go back into? I don't know many people who could read criticism about themselves and then not hold some kind of bad feelings toward the person who wrote it. (It's like in all those courtroom dramas where an objection is sustained and the judge instructs the jury to disregard a statement. I never understood that. You can't unsee or unhear something.)
I'm sure this is the first of many cases involving social media that we're going to see.
Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.