Even if it enrages your boss, social net speech is protected

Even if it enrages your boss, social net speech is protected
Highlights

As Facebook and Twitter become as central to workplace conversation as the company cafeteria, federal regulators are ordering employers to scale back policies that limit what workers can say online. Employers often seek to discourage comments that paint them in a negative light. Don’t discuss company matters publicly,

As Facebook and Twitter become as central to workplace conversation as the company cafeteria, federal regulators are ordering employers to scale back policies that limit what workers can say online. Employers often seek to discourage comments that paint them in a negative light. Don’t discuss company matters publicly, a typical social media policy will say, and don’t disparage managers, co-workers or the company itself. Violations can be a firing offense.

But in a series of recent rulings and advisories, labor regulators have declared many such blanket restrictions illegal. The National Labor Relations Board(United States of America) says workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook.

In addition to ordering the reinstatement of various workers fired for their posts on social networks, the agency has pushed companies nationwide, including giants like General Motors, Target and Costco, to rewrite their social media rules. “Many view social media as the new water cooler,” said Mark G. Pearce, the board’s chairman, noting that federal law has long protected the right of employees to discuss work-related matters. “All we’re doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology.”

The labor board’s rulings, which apply to virtually all private sector employers, generally tell companies that it is illegal to adopt broad social media policies — like bans on “disrespectful” comments or posts that criticize the employer — if those policies discourage workers from exercising their right to communicate with one another with the aim of improving wages, benefits or working conditions.

But the agency has also found that it is permissible for employers to act against a lone worker ranting on the Internet. Several cases illustrate the differing standards. At Hispanics United of Buffalo, a nonprofit social services provider in upstate New York, a caseworker threatened to complain to the boss that others were not working hard enough. Another worker, Mariana Cole-Rivera, posted a Facebook message asking, “My fellow co-workers, how do you feel?”

Several of her colleagues posted angry, sometimes expletive-laden, responses. “Try doing my job. I have five programs,” wrote one. “What the hell, we don’t have a life as is,” wrote another. Hispanics United fired Ms. Cole-Rivera and four other caseworkers who responded to her, saying they had violated the company’s harassment policies by going after the caseworker who complained.

In a 3-to-1 decision, the labor board concluded that the caseworkers had been unlawfully terminated. It found that the posts in 2010 were the type of “concerted activity” for “mutual aid” that is expressly protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Denise M. Keyser, a labor lawyer who advises many companies, said employers should adopt social media policies that are specific rather than impose across-the-board prohibitions.

Do not just tell workers not to post confidential information, Ms. Keyser said. Instead, tell them not to disclose, for example, trade secrets, product introduction dates or private health details.

But placing clear limits on social media posts without crossing the legal line remains difficult, said Steven M. Swirsky, another labor lawyer. “Even when you review the N.L.R.B. rules and think you’re following the mandates,” he said, “there’s still a good deal of uncertainty.”

Source: New York Times

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