Rebecca's experience spans traditional labor and employment, immigration, and federal contract compliance and audits. She supports clients with their corporate transactions, advising on all aspects of labor and employment diligence, negotiating with new unions and conducting effects bargaining, and assisting her clients with post-acquisition or post-divestiture integration. Prior to joining the firm, she served as Senior VP of HR and Associate General Counsel at one of the nation’s largest student loan guarantors. She is a frequent author and speaker on labor and employment topics confronting HR professionals, including legal issues related to talent management, succession planning, and compliance.
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.
In an unexpected decision, on Tuesday, November 22nd, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against implementation of the Department of Labor’s (“DOL’s”) controversial final Rule expanding overtime eligibility for millions of workers, which was set to take effect on December 1st.
The DOL’s new Rule, issued on May 18, 2016, nearly doubled the salary threshold for the so-called “white collar exemptions” from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA’s”) minimum wage and overtime requirements. Under the old Rule, employers satisfied the minimum salary threshold if they paid exempt employees a salary of $23,660 annually (or $455/week). The new Rule increased this requirement to $47,476 annually (or $913/week). According to the DOL, this new threshold was set based on the salary level at the 40th percentile of earnings for full-time workers in the lowest-wage Census Region (which currently is the South). See DOL Factsheet, Final Rule to Update the Regulations Defining and Delimiting the Exemption for Executive, Administrative, and Professional Employees, available at https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/overtime-factsheet.htm.
Since the 1940s, the DOL’s regulations have required employers to satisfy both a “salary” and a “duties” test in order to classify employees as exempt executive, administrative, or professional employees. The DOL last updated the minimum salary requirement in 2004. When it issued the new minimum salary requirement in May 2016, the DOL stated that in focusing on the salary component in its new Rule, its intent was to “simplify the identification of overtime-protected employees, thus making the [executive / administrative / professional] exemption easier for employers and workers to understand and apply.” See DOL Factsheet, supra. The DOL observed that—absent an upward salary adjustment by their employers—the new Rule would expand the right to receive overtime pay to approximately 4.2 million workers currently classified as exempt. See id.
Despite this lengthy regulatory history, in deciding to issue a nationwide preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant held that while Congress delegated significant authority to the DOL to define exempt duties, it did not authorize the DOL to limit application of the white collar exemptions based on salary level. The District Court noted: “While [Congress’s] explicit delegation would give the [DOL] significant leeway to establish the types of duties that might qualify an employee for the exemption, nothing in the [executive / administrative / professional] exemption indicates that Congress intended the [DOL] to define and delimit with respect to a minimum salary level.” As such, in promulgating the May 2016 final Rule, “the [DOL] exceed[ed] its delegated authority and ignore[d] Congress’s intent by raising the minimum salary level such that it supplants the duties test.”
Although the District Court stated that its decision applies only to the DOL’s May 2016 final Rule – and expressly disclaimed an intent to make a “general statement on the lawfulness of the salary-level test for the [executive / administrative / professional] exemption” – proponents of the DOL’s final Rule likely will continue to argue that the District Court’s decision runs counter to an established understanding of the state of the law and considerable judicial precedent across the country enforcing the DOL’s minimum salary requirement for decades. Indeed, despite the District Court’s attempt to limit its holding, the court’s rationale would appear to have considerably broader implications than an injunction only against the new minimum salary requirement.
Yesterday’s preliminary injunction is a welcome development for employers concerned about the DOL’s abrupt and significant increase in the minimum salary requirement for the white-collar exemptions. It is clear that the new minimum salary requirement will not go into effect for U.S. employers on December 1, 2016, as anticipated. However, employers should not assume that the DOL’s final Rule is dead. The District Court’s order only imposes a preliminary injunction, which the District Court could lift itself after further litigation, although that outcome seems relatively unlikely at present. The DOL also could appeal any final injunction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a possibility that also is uncertain given the imminent change in presidential administrations. Further, future litigation will determine whether the Eastern District of Texas’s rationale could be adopted more broadly to have a more sweeping effect on the longstanding salary basis test.
While the future of the DOL’s new minimum salary requirement is now uncertain, employers should remember that the duties requirements for the FLSA’s white collar exemptions remain intact. Employers should remain diligent in ensuring that only those employees whose primary duties satisfy one or more of the applicable exempt duties tests are treated as exempt from overtime requirements.
Employers also should remain aware of exemption requirements under applicable state law, which are unaffected by developments at the federal level. For example, employers must remember that during the period the injunction is in effect, they still must comply with varying state-level minimum salary requirements that are higher than the existing federal minimum. For example, California requires that white-collar exempt employees be paid a monthly minimum salary of at least twice the state’s minimum wage. California’s minimum wage will increase starting January 1, 2017, with annual increases thereafter. As of January 1, 2017, the California salary minimum will be $43,680, lower than the $47,476 proposed requirement at issue but far above the current federal salary requirement.
QUESTION: We conduct drug testing whenever an employee is injured at work or in involved in an accident. I recently read that this may violate OSHA’s anti-retaliation rule. How can that be? I would think OSHA would want employers to drug test to keep workplaces drug-free and safe.
Question: We have been flooded with coverage of Zika, from the Rio Olympics to the recent travel restrictions in Miami As an employer, I want to be prepared and proactive to protect my employees, but I am also concerned about overreacting. I understand there are many reported cases of Zika, but only six cases where the individual actually became infected with the virus by a mosquito bite in the United States. I want my company to take prudent measures, but also not to panic and cause my employees to unnecessarily fear for their wellbeing. What can (and should) I do to protect my employees? Also, are there any state or federal employment law obligations implicated by a potential Zika outbreak that I should be aware of? Answer→
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?
Dorsey is a business law firm with more than 550 attorneys across the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Our lawyers regularly handle every sort of employment matter, litigated and non-litigated. We have extensive, successful trial experience (including class and collective actions), as well as an outstanding record for obtaining summary judgments. Dorsey also has broad experience in advising, counseling, compliance and development, policy handbook review, training and other measures that can greatly reduce the likelihood of litigation or governmental enforcement actions.