Do employees have a protected right to complain about and discuss their supervisor with co-workers on Facebook? In some circumstances, perhaps. In today’s New York Times article, “Company Accused of Firing Over Facebook Post” we read:
Lafe Solomon, the board’s acting general counsel, said, “This is a fairly straightforward case under the National Labor Relations Act — whether it takes place on Facebook or at the water cooler, it was employees talking jointly about working conditions, in this case about their supervisor, and they have a right to do that.”
That act gives workers a federally protected right to form unions, and it prohibits employers from punishing workers — whether union or nonunion — for discussing working conditions or unionization. The labor board said the company’s Facebook rule was “overly broad” and improperly limited employees’ rights to discuss working conditions among themselves.
As you might expect, some of the language used in this case is colorful. Again from the article:
The case involves Dawnmarie Souza, who had to prepare a response to a customer’s complaint about her work. Ms. Souza, the board said, was unhappy that her supervisor would not let a representative of the Teamsters, the union representing the company’s workers, help prepare her response.
Ms. Souza then mocked her supervisor on Facebook, using several vulgarities to ridicule him, according to Jonathan Kreisberg, director of the board’s Hartford office, which filed the complaint. He also said she had written, “love how the company allows a 17 to become a supervisor” — 17 is the company’s lingo for a psychiatric patient.
In general it’s never a good idea to publicly criticize or mock your supervisor. It remains to be seen if the employee actions in this case were legally protected. What constitutes protected speech in situations like this can be tricky:
“There will arguably be cases where it is not concerted activity,” Mr. Babson [a member of the National Labor Relations Board in the 1980s] said, suggesting that if a worker lashed out in a post against a supervisor but was not communicating with co-workers, that type of comment might not be protected.
If the Facebook conversation involves several co-workers, however, it is far more likely to be viewed as “concerted protected activity,” he said.
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.
Courts often view workers’ statements as disloyal when they are defamatory and are not supported by facts. Mr. Babson cited a case upholding the firing of airline workers who held signs saying their airline was unsafe. But, he said, if employees held signs accurately saying their airline or restaurant had been cited for dozens of safety violations, that would most likely be protected.
It’s a safer bet to keep negative opinions about your boss and employer off the web.
Does your school have social media guidelines for employees, and provide regular opportunities to discuss them? If not, why not?
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