No one wants to lose his or her job over a Facebook post. However, most employees also do not think twice before griping about a boss in a status update, or posting a picture from last Friday night on a coworker’s wall. While free speech has historically been protected in the United States, there can also be negative repercussions for exercising that right.
By Alice Cheng
Does it violate the law to fire someone over social media activity? Possibly, depending on whether the post is determined to be a “protected concerted activity” or not. Generally, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has determined that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act permits “concerted activity,” which involves employees talking jointly about terms or conditions of employment (i.e., coworkers discussing a disliked supervisor on Facebook), and is permissible in order to protect employees against employer retaliation. Section 8(a)(1) is related and prohibits interfering with employees rights under Section 7.
For example, merely “venting” on a social network about a workplace condition is generally not enough to constitute protected concerted activity. Protected posts usually must involve, at a minimum, initiating or inducing coworkers to action (i.e., generating discussion among coworkers on Facebook).
Last month, the Acting General Counsel of the NLRB issued his third report on social media, including an analysis of seven recent social media cases, focusing on employers’ social media policies and rules. The report mentions that rules explicitly restricting Section 7 activity would be clearly unlawful. If the rule does not explicitly do so, it may still be unlawful under Section 8(a)(1) upon a showing that: “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.” Although the cases within the report do not represent “the law,” they still provide helpful general guidance for employers seeking to design appropriate policies.
Avoid broad and ambiguous language. Policies which tell employees to not use “offensive” or “demeaning” comments should be backed with a specific example (such as offensive posts meant to discriminate based on race, sex, religion, or national origin) so that reasonable employers would not construe such language to cover protected activities. The Board has also long held that any rule requiring an employee to obtain the employer’s permission prior to engaging in protected activity is blatantly unlawful. Similarly, policies cannot require posts to be “completely accurate and not misleading” and should not limit discussions of work so that any discussion would be virtually impossible.
Rules requiring employees to maintain the confidentiality of trade secrets and private and confidential information are permissible, as employees have no protected right to discuss these matters. Generally speaking, employees have few rights to workplace privacy. However, there are limits on an employer’s ability to limit the use of the employer’s logos and trademarks. For example, an employer cannot prohibit the use of picket signs containing the logos or trademarks.
Savings clauses have no real effect. These clauses generally state that the policy will be administered in compliance with relevant laws. The NLRB has dismissed these as not curing any ambiguities in the overbroad policies.
It is also helpful for employers to place policies in context. The policies should acknowledge the usefulness and appeal of social media, but also remind employees that they are responsible for what they write, to know their audience, and to use their best judgment. The purpose of a social media policy should clearly be to avoid use that would adversely affect job performance or business interests (including harming clients or customers), rather than for the sake of surveillance and retaliation.
Employers should also stay updated on recent developments pertaining to the disclosure of social media passwords. Recently a number of states have considered or implemented bans on “shoulder surfing” or mandatory disclosure of private accounts.