NLRB judge rules in favor of fired Facebookers in latest case

Two recent court cases illustrate how unpredictable the legal landscape is in relation to firings having to do with employees and social networking.

Further evidence that the legal landscape is a tricky one for social networking cases: A judge for the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of five employees who were fired from their jobs at a non-profit for complaining about work conditions via Facebook.

Mariana Cole-Rivera posted a message on her Facebook page from her personal computer that said, "Lydia Cruz, a coworker feels that we don't help our clients at HUB (sic) I about had it! My fellow coworkers how do u feel?" Several co-workers also expressed frustration with their jobs.

Lydia Cruz-Moore, who was mentioned in the message, complained to HUB's executive director, Lourdes Iglesias, about the posts. Her text messages to Iglesias suggested that he terminate or at least discipline the employees. Iglesias fired all five employees who had commented on Facebook.

The case against the posters:

  • The posts constituted bullying and harassment and violated HUB's policy on harassment
  • The posts caused Cruz-Moore to suffer "a heart attack as a result of their harassment," although it was never established that she had a heart attack or that there was any connection between her health and the Facebook posts.

The court ruled against the non-profit, however, because "employees have a protected right to discuss matters affecting their employment amongst themselves, and explicit or implicit criticism by a co-worker of the manner in which they are performing their jobs" is a protected activity.

Compare this one to a recent case in which a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star was fired in April for similar critiques of the paper and the Tucson area. The newspaper first warned the reporter when he posted a tweet criticizing the newspaper's copy editors for headlines appearing in the sports section.  Following the tweet, the reporter was called in by the newspaper's human resources department and told to stop criticizing the newspaper.

He began tweeting about Tucson itself with posts like, "You stay homicidal, Tuscon" and "What?!?!?  No overnight homicide?  WTF?  You're slacking Tucson."

The NLRB found that the reporter "was terminated for posting inappropriate and unprofessional tweets, after having been warned not to do so."  While the warnings to him not to tweet about grievances with the newspaper or to criticize the newspaper could be interpreted to prohibit him from activities permitted under the labor law mentioned above, the statements did not constitute overbroad rules by the newspaper and were made "in response to specific inappropriate conduct."

It makes your head hurt thinking about all the gray areas of these laws and policies.

By Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is the former 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.