There are limits to what employees can say through social media

Facebook in the workplace

This article is written by Katie Loehrke, human resources subject matter expert and editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource firm. For more information, visit and

Guidance published by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in recent years has, at times, had employers wondering if there was anything employees could do on social media that wasn’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA).

It’s becoming more and more clear that while employees who participate in protected concerted activity under the NLRA may do so on social media, plenty of activity doesn’t fall under that category. Though initial guidance and court cases seemed to heavily favor employees, more recent activity has begun to highlight objectionable behavior by employees that is not protected.

The activities in the two situations that follow were not only actionable for the employers involved, they were enough to cost the offenders their jobs.

Humor, satire can lead to firing

Employers protecting their reputations is not a new thing, though the inflated power social media gives employees to damage that reputation online may have companies giving a bit more attention to employee communications. While it is possible for employees to publicly damage a company’s reputation while protected by the NRLA, there are plenty of instances in which offensive or obnoxious behavior is fair game for employers and their disciplinary policies.

Recently, the chief technology officer of a major business news website lost his job after his personal Twitter posts were perceived by readers as misogynistic, racist and homophobic. This individual found it appropriate to use the online platform to broadcast his views on feminism, poverty and race relations. Likely making matters worse, when another employee caught wind of the employee’s opinions and fired back, the chief technology officer invited a face-to-face confrontation.

Though the individual claimed that his tweets were meant to be satirical, and his Twitter bio indicated that his “unprofessional opinions are not endorsed by anyone respectable,” his company didn’t see the humor. A company executive issued a statement indicating that the statements made by the individual had “no place at our company.” The employee was forced to resign.

Insensitivity can lead to firing

Another company’s PR executive also recently took to Twitter in another tactless attempt at humor. En route to South Africa to visit family, the would-be former executive mentioned AIDS in conjunction with race. While in the air from London to South Africa, the individual’s crude tweet had been retweeted over 2,000 times.

The employee started the day a relatively unknown Twitter user; she had only about 500 followers at the beginning of this debacle. However, by the power of social media, her tweet reached her employer before her flight even touched the ground.

While the circumstances here are different from those in the previous example, the outcome is much the same. The company released a statement indicating that the employee’s offensive comment “does not reflect the views and values of [the company]” and the employment relationship was quickly severed.

Though employers may strive to respect the division between an employee’s personal and professional lives, employees can still affect the reputation of their company at any time. If offensive behavior on an employee’s part isn’t protected by the law, an employer is free to discipline him or her, up to and including termination.

Can employers give fair warning?

Employers should be careful about giving the impression that employees aren’t allowed to relay their personal opinions on social media, since a broad statement like this could violate the NLRA if expressed without context. However, that doesn’t mean companies can’t carefully remind employees about the public nature of social media and employees’ duty to appropriately represent the company.

Not only could such cautionary tales such as those outlined in this article keep a company from feeling compelled to terminate a valuable employee, but they could also ward off a public relations nightmare.

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