[author: Tim Banks]
The scope of an employer’s right to discipline and terminate an employee for indiscreet or inappropriate remarks in social media is far from settled. Given that an employee’s social media activities have the potential to “go viral” (or at least be seen by hundreds, if not thousands of people), organizations must assess whether the activities of employees outside of work have the potential to negatively affect, even transiently, the reputation and goodwill of the organization.
Currently, the legal battle over an employer’s legitimate interest in an employee’s use of social media is being played out among employees who are relatively junior within organizations and may, justifiably or unjustifiably, believe that their actions are not under the gaze of their employers.
This post compares two recent cases from the United States and the United Kingdom with an earlier case from Canada.
Don’t Make Fun of the Customers
In a recent U.S. National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) decision, Karl Knauz Motors, Inc. (Re), the NLRB considered whether a car dealership could terminate a salesperson for comments on Facebook about an accident that involved a customer of the dealership. The customer had driven into a pond and the salesperson posted photos on Facebook with sarcastic comments. The employer argued that the comments violated employee handbook rules that required employees to be “courteous, polite, and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees” and which prohibited conduct that was “disrespectful” or involved the “use of profanity or other language which injures the image or reputation” of the employer. In addition, not long before the post about the customer, the same salesperson had posted photos and comments criticizing food that had been served at a sales event at the dealership. The tenor of the earlier post was that the dealership should have served better food given the profile of the sales event.
The salesperson claimed that he was terminated in violation of the protections afforded by section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which, among other things, provides rights to participate in concerted activity for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. The NRLB has previously issued decisions and guidance documents this year warning that social media policies must not stifle workers from communicating about workplace conditions as this would offend section 7 of the NLRA.
An administrative law judge concluded that the postings about the car accident did not fall within section 7 of the NLRA because it was posted by the employee on his Facebook page and not discussion took place on Facebook about the post. By contrast, the comments about the food at the sales event were made in the context of an exchange among employees on Facebook. The administrative law judge concluded that the comments were related to the dealership’s image at the event and this could affect the working conditions of the employees by affecting sales.
In a split decision, the NLRB upheld the decision of the administrative law judge. The employee’s termination for the comments about the customer was not protected by the NLRA. However, the NLRB ordered that the employee handbook rules were overbroad and not enforceable.
The dissenting NLRB member concluded that the requirement to be courteous did not violate section 7 of the NLRA and held that:
“[r]easonable employees know that a work setting differs from a barroom, room and they recognize that employers have a genuine and legitimate interest in encouraging civil discourse and non-injurious and respectful speech.”
Say What You Will About Gay Marriage
In the Smith v. Trafford Housing Trust, a housing manager of the Trust read a news article online regarding gay marriage and posted the link to his Facebook account with the comment “an equality too far”. The manager’s Facebook privacy settings had been set so that his posting could be viewed by his “Friends” and also “Friends of Friends”. This prompted an exchange with one of the employee’s colleagues at work, which was quite tempered but suggested that those gays and lesbians “have no faith and don’t believe in Christ”. The employee was suspended and subjected to a disciplinary proceeding that resulted in a finding of gross misconduct. The employee was offered a demotion to a non-managerial position in view of the length of his service.
According to the decision of the English High Court of Justice (Chancery Division), the Trust had over 300 employees. The court found that at the material time, the employee listed that he was a manager at the Trust. His profile stated “What can I say – it’s a job and it pays the bills”. He described his religious views as “full on charismatic Christian.” His profile and wall pages also listed that he was a manager at the Trust. In putting the post into context, the court held that it was one of a number of posts about “sport, food, motorcycles and cars.”
The court concluded that a reasonable reader of the manager’s wall would not have understood him to be a spokesperson for the Trust. The court rejected that any loss of reputation by the Trust would arise in the mind of a reasonable reader. The manager’s Facebook wall “was primarily a virtual meeting place at which those who knew of him, whether his work colleagues or not, could at their choice attend to find out what he had to say about a diverse range of non-work related subjects.” The court minimized the broader access to his wall by “friends of friends” by stating that “actual access would still depend upon the persons in that wider circle taking the trouble to access it.” The court found that the manager did not thrust his views onto colleagues at the office. The medium and context was not “inherently” work related. In the result, the court concluded that the manager had been constructively dismissed.
Don’t Diss and Threaten Other Employees or Your Employer
The problems for the employees in Lougheed Imports Ltd. (West Coast Mazda) v. United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 1518 started when one of the employees posted on Facebook a post that could be interpreted as threatening: “Sometimes ya have good smooth days when nobody’s [expletive] with your ability to earn a living … and sometimes accidents DO happen, its [sic] unfortunate but thats [sic] why there [sic] called accidents right?” Another employee also was posting derogatory comments about managers.
The employees had close to 100 and 377 “friends” respectively. Significantly, the posts were escalating in tone and extreme enough that one person “de-friended” and even the girlfriend of one of the employees commented that ”[s]omethings just shouldn’t be broadcasted on facebook, especially when you still work there.”
The employer terminated the employment of the two employees. The union grieved but lost. In an interesting counterpoint to the Trafford Housing Trust case, the British Columbia Labour Relations Board concluded that there the comments on Facebook had sufficient proximity to the employer’s business. The comments had been used as a “verbal weapon”. They went beyond shop floor comments to insubordination in front of employees who were friends of the employees by degrading a manager and referring to discipline. The comments also counselled Facebook friends not to shop at the employer. In the result, the termination was upheld.
Substance, Purpose and Context
One should be careful to draw conclusions from a handful of cases in multiple jurisdictions with different approaches to employment and privacy laws. However, one theme that emerges in all three cases is that, in addition to the substance of the social media posts, the purpose and context for those postings are important considerations in concluding whether the employer has a legitimate interest in the activity of the employee’s social media activities.