Staffing EPLI: Facebook and Freedom of Speech
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protects the rights of all employees to engage in “concerted activity”, which can materialize in many forms. Concerted speech, for example, is when employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding terms and conditions of employment. This typically occurs when one or more employees speak up to management or their superiors bringing a group complain or concern, often about company policies, products or other happenings. Such actions and conversations are protected under laborers rights laws.
However there is a fine line between speaking up for the greater good and ranting about an employer or coworker, especially in the new digital world. Facebook and other social media platforms have made it increasingly complex to discern what is and is not reasonable grounds for termination when it comes to an employees self expression and grievance. For example the NLRB recently filed and fought a claim in favor of several construction employees who were fired for taking their concerns about hazardous working conditions to YouTube. Following an investigation the NLRB determined that such expression was protected as a concerted activity because it was for the betterment of all workers.
In contrast, there are dozens of recent incidents where employees were terminated for their conduct on social media because it was an expression of their own personal grievance. Despite what many employees may assume, their legal rights to freedom of speech is limited when it comes to their employment. In fact, there are many cases where employees can be, and frequently are, let go on the basis of their conduct or acts of self expression. Particularly if that conduct is in violation of their employers ethics or is otherwise harmful to the employer.
However, when it comes to exercising your employment termination authority as an employer, and in turn when the NLRB exerts their authority, there is a lot of subjectivity. What may seem justified to one situation may be deemed improper in another due to the circumstances. As such, it is important that any operation has the right protection against employment disputes.
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