We have previously written about situations in which employees were fired for making disparaging comments on Facebook about their jobs or their supervisors; sometimes both. The resulting wrongful termination cases caught the attention of the entire nation because they posed an important question: where do we draw the line between protected employee speech and mere trash talk?
After a number of landmark rulings, the news seems to be good for employees. The National Labor Relations Board and other federal regulators have taken a number of steps to protect the social media speech of employees, including ordering some companies to reinstate fired employees. The NLRB has also urged major U.S. corporations to rewrite their policies regulating employees' use of social media.
The chairman of the NLRB recently explained that there are already federal laws protecting the rights of workers to discuss work-related matters without fear of retribution. He said: "Many view social media as the new water cooler. All we're doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology."
It is important to note, however, that not all online speech is protected just because it could arguably relate to work. Recently, a reporter in Arizona was fired for offensive comments she made on Twitter that had nothing to do with working conditions.
After being frustrated by a lack of news, she Tweeted comments such as "What?!?!?! No overnight homicide. ... You're slacking, Tucson." The NLRB upheld the newspaper's decision to fire the reporter.
Discretion and common sense are still necessary, as they always have been and hopefully always will be. However, the fact that federal regulators are upholding the rights of employees to discuss important work matters on social media sites is a big victory for all workers.
Source: New York Times, "Even if It Enrages Your Boss, Social Net Speech Is Protected," Steven Greenhouse, Jan. 21, 2013