Saturday, February 12, 2011
The Internet - and Facebook in particular - has dramatically changed social communication. It's also made communication a lot more complicated and, at times, caustic.
More than a few folks have used their Facebook page to rant (or worse) about what irks them. Sometimes it's about their place of employment, their boss or even their coworkers.
Sometimes the result is turmoil in the workplace. Sometimes folks get fired.
Our laws on these matters are, at best, spotty and clearly years behind the times. The speed at which technology changes makes it almost certain the law will never catch up to the, well, cyber-reality.
Given that, people shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to legal rulings regarding jobs (as in keeping them) and the Internet.
Take, for example, the dispute over the firing of an employee by a Connecticut ambulance company.
The employee, an emergency medical technician, had been fired after blasting her boss on Facebook. Her expletive-filled posting drew supportive posts from colleagues, which probably added fuel to her firing.
The National Labor Relations Board sued the company on the employee's behalf saying her posts were protected speech under federal labor laws.
A settlement was reached between the company and the NLRB. The company offered a settlement to the employee and agreed to change its blogging and Internet policy that prohibited workers from disparaging the company or its supervisors.
So what does this mean?
Here is the take on the lawsuit from Associated Press reporter Sam Hananel: "Employers should think twice before trying to restrict workers from talking about their jobs on Facebook or other social media."
It doesn't seem all that black-and-white to us. Yes, in some circumstances, where a union is involved, for example, employees might have some legal muscle to keep their jobs if they opt to pop off on Facebook.
But in most circumstances, the employer sets the standard for what is and isn't acceptable behavior - including speech - by employees. If an employee of a small restaurant, for example, were to roast his boss on Facebook (or on the street to regular customers) he likely would be fired. And the federal government wouldn't be coming to the rescue.
More of the Facebook-type incident will occur and more cases will be making their way through the legal system. A firm answer likely won't be found.
Employees would be best served by using some old-fashioned common sense. If the speech isn't appropriate in a public place (imagine a soapbox on Main Street) then it's not appropriate to post on Facebook if you want to keep your job.