by James C. Hyatt

The federal government’s National Labor Relations Board continues to probe the pitfalls of social media in the workplace.

Social Media Apps_iStock_000017344300XSmallThe limits of workplace rules and of employee behavior are “a ‘hot topic’ among practitioners, human resource professions, the media, and the public,” noted acting general counsel Lafe Solomon in a recent report.

Business Ethics previously examined the NLRB’s social media approach last August.

The NLRB’s new year-end survey of 14 recent unfair labor practice cases cited several instances where employers adopted “overly broad” policies in attempting to police use of social media at work or online, even though, in some cases the discipline or discharge of an employee was legal.

Several cases arose from employee rants and protests posted on Facebook, where disciplinary steps were upheld because the worker’s behavior wasn’t considered “protected concerted conduct,” a common issue in NLRB cases.  Employees, the latest memo noted, have a “right to discuss their wages and other terms and conditions of employment, both among themselves and with non-employees.”

“Overbroad social media policies are high on the NLRB’s current enforcement agenda,” says global law firm Ropes and Gray.  The firm’s analysis said “employers who wish to restrict their employees’ use of social media must take care to specify the precise types of communications that will violate their social media policy, and avoid using broad, generic terms that could be understood to reach protected communication and activity.  This includes such commonplace terms as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘defamatory’ ……”

Just blowing off steam via Facebook doesn’t get much sympathy at the NLRB.  Consider:

–a bartender complained on Facebook that another bartender was “screwing over” customers by substituting a pre-made mix for more expensive premium liquor, and fretted that the practice could lose business.  Eventually, the complainer was discharged for using “unprofessional communication” on Facebook.  The NLRB legal staff didn’t think the behavior was linked closely enough to working conditions for the discharge to be illegal.

–a respiratory therapist at a children’s hospital, riding in an ambulance with a paramedic coworker, posted  via cell phone a Facebook message “indicating that it was driving her nuts that her coworker was sucking her teeth.”  After two Facebook ‘friends’ commiserated online, the therapist said “she was about to beat him with a ventilator,” the NLRB summary said.

The coworker complained to the company, and the therapist was eventually disciplined for that and other behavior.  The NLRB legal staff found labor laws didn’t offer her protection because “it did not concern terms and conditions of employment. She was merely complaining about the sounds her coworker was making, and was not even suggesting that the Employer could do anything about it.”

–a warehouse worker who was feeling ill was told by his supervisor that he could leave but he would be charged an attendance point; the worker completed his shift, but, from his car in the parking lot, posted a Facebook comment saying it was too bad when your boss doesn’t care about your health.  And he told a ‘friend’ who expressed support that he (the worker) thought the company was, in the NLRB’s words, “just trying to give him a reason to be fired because he was about ‘a hair away from setting it off.’ ”

He was subsequently suspended without pay and later discharged for inappropriate, threatening, and violent remarks.  An HR manager said she interpreted the ‘setting it off’ remark as a threat to bring a gun to the warehouse and shoot everyone in it.  The NLRB concluded the employee wasn’t trying to initiate group action over sick leave policies and noted he had “characterized his conduct as ‘just venting.’ ”

On the other hand, some Facebook discussions do fall under protection of the labor laws:

–workers at a popcorn packaging plant commented on Facebook about the behavior of an operations manager.  One said she hated the place and couldn’t wait to get out of there; eventually, one of the workers was discharged for the comments about the manager.  But the NLRB reviewers said the comments were “part of a discussion of employees’ shared concerns about terms and conditions of employment.”  The memo noted “it is well established that employee complaints and criticism about a supervisor’s attitude and performance may be protected” by the labor laws.

–a nurse at a hospital where a discharged employee had killed one supervisor and critically wounded another posted a series of critical messages online during a seven-month period.  He also criticized the hospital’s “management style” in a local newspaper and in other forums, and made a critical presentation to a borough assembly.  He was terminated. The NLRB staff found that many of the nurse’s remarks amounted to the sort of “rhetorical hyperbole” that is protected under labor laws.

And the NLRB memo criticized a number of rules for 30,000 employees at a large clinical testing laboratory, labeling the provisions “overbroad.”  Among them:

–Language that prohibited prohibited employees from disclosing or communicating sensitive, confidential or non-public information about the company without prior approval of senior management or the law department.

–A provision prohibiting use of the company’s name or service marks outside the course of business without prior approval of the law department.

–A prohibition against publishing any representation about the company without prior approval by senior management and the law department, including statements to the media, ads, weblogs and voice mail.

–A requirement that social networking site communications be made in an honest, professional and appropriate manner.

–A provision saying employees needed approval to identify themselves as the employer’s employees and that that social media comments must expressly be labeled as personal opinions that don’t necessarily reflect the employer’s opinions.

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