Jillian is a Partner in Dorsey’s Labor & Employment group, where she focuses her practice on employment litigation and advice, and on labor law issues. Jillian assists employers in investigating and responding to internal complaints, agency charges, and lawsuits based on allegations of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, breach of contract, conversion, wage and leave statute violations, and whistleblower claims. In her advice practice, she helps clients avoid litigation and be in the best position possible if an employee does bring a claim. Jillian also helps employers navigate union grievances and unfair labor practice charges.
Social media has created a minefield of concerns for both employees and employers. The news is full of stories of employees documenting their questionable off-duty conduct on social media, or posting comments containing racist or derogatory remarks. Often, the employer—or sometimes, the rest of the online community—will demand that the employee be fired. In such a scenario many employers may be wondering: What could prevent an employer from lawfully terminating an employee based on social media activity, and what steps can employers take to best handle these situations?
Recent examples abound:
Last year an employee of a large corporate bank was terminated following a racist rant on Facebook. Throngs of customers contacted the bank, threatening to close their accounts if the employee was not fired. The employee was promptly terminated for her “reprehensible” comments.
Many readers may remember the notable case of a public relations director in 2013, who, before boarding a flight to South Africa, tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Despite her 170 followers, her tweet immediately went viral worldwide. By the time she landed in South Africa eleven hours later, her manager had informed her that she’d been fired.
Most recently, on October 31, 2017, a marketing director for a government contracting firm was terminated after a photograph of her flipping off President Trump’s motorcade went viral on social media.
In the wake of the September “white nationalist” marches, numerous Twitter accounts were created to identify and draw attention to the participants. Many employers have been inundated with demands that these individuals be terminated, and have been quick to distance themselves from the employees. In this situation, there are several things employers should consider. First, be aware of state and federal laws which may affect the way you might react to employee social media use. For example:
Off-duty Conduct Laws. Some states have laws prohibiting employers from disciplining or firing employees for activities pursued in their personal time—including the use of lawful substances such as medical marijuana and tobacco.
Protection of Political Views. A few states (and some cities and counties) protect employees from discrimination based on their political views or affiliation. In such a state, terminating or disciplining an employee for purely political social media activity or for political conduct outside the workplace could be illegal.
NLRB Protections. The National Labor Relations Act and similar state laws protect employees’ rights to communicate with one other about their employment. More specifically, employees have the right to engage in “protected activity” regarding their workplace—sharing grievances and organizing online in protected activity. Under these laws, an employee who is fired for posting online complaints about their wages, benefits, tip sharing, management, or hours, etc. could have a strong legal claim. As we noted in a recent post, this protection can be quite robust, leading to the reinstatement of a union employee fired after posting: “F*** his mother and his entire f***ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!” (He was saved by the last sentence, which linked the rant to his union activities.)
Prohibitions on Retaliation. Beyond NLRB protections, many employment laws protect employees from retaliation for claiming that their rights have been violated. If an employee complains online about workplace discrimination, harassment, or other legal violations, that employee may be protected.
However, at the end of the day most states are “at-will” employment states, meaning both employers and employees are free to terminate the employment relationship at any time with or without reason. Therefore—if an employer determines that an employee’s speech outside the workplace runs counter to the employer’s values or public image, the employer could have solid grounds for termination. While this is not the case in all states (for example, Montana), in the vast majority of states employment is considered at-will. So long as the aforementioned laws are taken into account, chances are good that an employer can safely terminate an employee for objectionable conduct online. While consulting with legal counsel prior to any such termination is recommended, employers can take the following affirmative steps to provide proper procedure in the event of an employee’s worrisome or unacceptable online behavior.
Social Media Use Policy. Adopt a policy, included in your handbook, informing employees that their personal social media accounts, online networking account, blogs, and general online posts could get them in trouble at work. Explain what types of content could create problems, including harassing and bullying behavior or discriminatory or offensive language. This can include online conduct that may be associated with the company or which could cause serious interpersonal problems in the workplace.
Be Consistent. As with all employment policies, be consistent when enforcing your social media policies. If a female employee is terminated for posting objectionable material on the internet but a male employee is not for the same or similar conduct, the female employee may have a cause of action for sex discrimination. Always enforce your policies consistently to protect your company.
Use of profanity by employees, whether in the workplace, outside the workplace, or on social media, presents difficult legal issues for the employer, as highlighted by a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturning the firing of an employee who engaged in a highly profane Facebook rant against a supervisor. Although an employer has a justifiable interest in keeping profanity out of the workplace, its interest does not overshadow an employee’s Section 7 protected rights to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).
In yet another NLRA-social media decision (see here and here), the court considered whether the vulgar and offensive language – directed at a supervisor – in an employee’s statement advocating for unionization is protected activity under the NLRA. See NLRB v. Pier Sixty, 855 F.3d 115 (2d Cir. 2017). The court held that language was protected and overturned the company’s termination of the employee in question.
Two days before a union election, an employee posted the following statement on Facebook:
Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***ER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!
The post was visible to the public for three days before the employee took it down. Company management saw the post before it was removed and terminated the employee. An unfair labor practice charge followed shortly afterward, alleging a violation of section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.
Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees the right to “self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations . . . and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157 (emphasis added). Section 8(a)(1), in turn, protects these rights by prohibiting employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of these rights. 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). Ordinarily, an employer is prohibited from discharging employees for participating in union-election activity, and the employee’s Facebook post did explicitly call for a pro-union vote in the upcoming election. But the protections of the NLRA are not absolute. The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) has long held that an employee engaged in “ostensibly protected activity may act in such an abusive manner that he loses the protection” of the NLRA. See NLRB v. City Disposal Sys., Inc., 465 U.S. 822, 837 (1984).
Here, the NLRB had ruled in favor of the employee. The Second Circuit upheld the Board, agreeing that the statement came close to, but did not cross, the line. The Board and the court applied a “totality-of-the-circumstances” test. Although the court gave considerable deference to the Administrative Law Judge’s factual findings (which were upheld by the Board), employers can find some comfort in the court’s note that the post seems “to sit at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments.”
The court provided several reasons for its decision:
First, although the post can be characterized as “dominated by vulgar attacks” on the supervisor, the message addresses the workplace concern of how management treats employees, qualifying the post as “concerted activity for the purpose of collective bargaining.”
Second, profanity among employees had been consistently tolerated by the employer, so it could reasonably be inferred that the employee was not fired for mere profanity, but for the protected, union-related content of the comment.
Third, the employer had engaged in other unlawful, anti-union conduct as the election approached, including threatening pro-union employees with the loss of their jobs or benefits, and by implementing a “no talk” rule prohibiting discussion of union issues.
Fourth, the court gave some weight to the fact that this post was made on Facebook—“a key medium of communication among coworkers and a tool for organization in the modern era,” and that the employee apparently (although erroneously) believed the post would not be publicly available. The court found that the Facebook posting was different from an outburst in the presence of customers.
Accordingly, there are a few takeaways for employers to keep in mind.
Implement a Clear, Written Policy. To effectively discipline employees for using offensive or vulgar language at the workplace, employers should have a clear written policy against profanity that informs employees of the rules regarding the use of profane or vulgar language in their interactions with colleagues and customers. The policy should specify the consequences for violations.
Enforce the Policy Consistently and Uniformly. Employers should be consistent in enforcing any policy against profanity in the workplace. Past failures to enforce or to impose appropriate sanctions may tie the employer’s hands in future situations where a sanctionable activity may arguably be clothed with NLRA-protection. (Consistency would necessarily include, for example, applying the policy to profanity by supervisors and managers as well as by line employees. The employer’s tolerance of profanity by supervisors was cited by the court as proof of inconsistent enforcement.) Consistent and uniform enforcement of the policy is key.
Be Careful Not to Limit Protected Activities. The enforcement of a policy against profanity or other inappropriate conduct must be balanced against an employee’s right to engage in protected activities under the NRLA. The employer’s other anti-union conduct in the Pier Sixty case was a factor in the decision. The Pier Sixty court has made clear that not all offensive language loses NLRA-protection. This decision confirms courts’ willingness to broadly construe the coverage of the NLRA, especially when considering employee activities on social media. Employers should carefully consider the context of potential profanity policy violations before taking disciplinary actions.
When faced with the question of whether to fire an employee who uses vulgar and offensive language in a Facebook post directed at a supervisor and her family, you should first determine whether the subject matter of the Facebook comment touches on any workplace concerns. If not, there may not be NLRA- protected conduct. But if the subject matter—notwithstanding the vulgarity—is arguably related to working terms and conditions, you should take extra caution to make sure that any discipline will not run afoul of the NLRA. Consider the company’s practice with regard to policing profanity at work. If the company has tolerated profanity use among its employees in the past, you may not be in a good position to sanction an employee for a statement that, although offensive, may be protected under the NLRA.
Question: I am a manager in a medium-sized retailer that has locations and employees in 16 states. The company maintains a social media policy, which was recently updated. Last week, I noticed that one of our employees posted some pretty nasty things about the company on Twitter. She accused the company of not treating employees fairly because some had to work on days when others did not. Perhaps worse, in response to customers who were praising the company’s products and services, she basically called the company cheap by saying it did not provide good pay or benefits. I have not noticed any reaction from other employees to the tweets, but I am worried they will hurt employee morale and possibly drive away customers. Is there anything I should consider before disciplining the employee who tweeted these things?
Question: I own a small manufacturing company that employs 25-35 employees, depending on our workload. Over the years, a number of my customers and my employees have “friended” me on Facebook. Last week, I saw that one of our employees had posted a comment that I don’t pay enough overtime and that I’m, “f—ing cheap,” because I don’t give enough paid vacation. Almost worse, I saw that three other employees “liked” the post. I work hard to treat my employees fairly, and to ensure that I staff adequately so that employees do not need to work overtime. I’m afraid this post is going to hurt employee morale, and I’d like to fire the employee who posted and the ones who liked the post. Is there anything I should consider?
I read with interest your analysis of pre-employment background checks in Quirky Question # 189. I’ve got a slightly different inquiry touching on the same issue.
I’m a Human Resources Executive at a national retail company. During several parts of the year, we need to hire additional cashiers. For many years, we have successfully used a temporary staffing agency to fill these seasonal positions. The temporary workers are employed by the staffing agency, but work at our company.
We offer a store credit card, and instruct all cashiers (whether regular or temporary) to encourage customers to complete applications for the card while checking out their purchases. The credit card application requires detailed personal and confidential information. We have several practices, procedures and policies in place to protect our customers from identity theft. For example, we conduct pre-employment credit and criminal background checks on all of our regular employees, and assume that the temporary agency conducts similar background checks on their workers whom they place at our company.
Since the seasonal workers are technically employed by the staffing agency, does that eliminate (or reduce) our liability should it turn out that the worker steals a customer’s identity? Moreover, should we play any role in what background checks the staffing agency runs on the seasonal workers to reduce any liability we may have for negligent hiring of those workers? Answer→
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