Can My Company Fire Me Over Trash-Talking on Facebook?

by Darwin on November 8, 2010

There’s an interesting case brewing, the first of its kind actually, where the National Labor Relations Board has taken up the case of an employee who trash-talked her supervisor, pretty inappropriately in my opinion, and was summarily fired for doing so.  The Labor Relations Board is arguing that a worker should be able to badmouth their boss or company as protected speech.  As outlined in the article at the NYTimes, here were some pertinent facts:

  • The company was American Medical Response in Connecticut
  • The company actually had a policy that bars employees from depicting them “in any way” on Facebook or other social media sites
  • It was a union employee, hence representation by the NLRB, but pundits believe this could set precedent for non-union workers as well.
  • The company claims the employee in question was discharged based on multiple, serious complaints about her behavior
  • The employee used several vulgarities to ridicule her supervisor on Facebook.  Co-workers joined in.
  • There seems to be a legal distinction as to whether comments are protected only if they are unrelated to work and are defamatory vs a disagreement, and whether or not the comments are factual.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  Presumably, following the outcome of this case, you may see your company issue revised or new policies related to the use of Social Media.  While I could sit back and play armchair quarterback on this, I could see how this is a relatively complex case with each side having some merit.

Fired? Worker Protection is in Play

On one hand, let’s say the employee just verbalized these complaints about her supervisor and it got back to the company.  She probably would not be fired.  Now, what if she sent an email to a friend?  Still probably not fired.  I think part of the problem resides in the ability to prove it was actually her making the statements, which is easier to verify with an authenticated Social Media account, whereas whisper down the lane verbal statements are usually not grounds for dismissal unless it involved insider trading or something more substantial.  It could be VERY subjective and a very slippery slope to start trolling the internet for statements from employees and firing them.  One could construe practically any “sigh”, sarcasm or complaint as defamatory and in violation of company policy.  Where is the line drawn?

What If You Were the Supervisor?

Conversely, I’m just picturing myself as a supervisor several years back before social media took hold.  I was highly unpopular in certain circles for actually enforcing work rules that my peers were afraid to, for cutting overtime that was absurdly inefficient, and for disciplines, etc.  I had my share of run-ins with employees and shop stewards.  But that was usually it.  Imagine now, that for all eternity, some disgruntled, immature employee was posting disparaging information about me on the internet – because I did my job while others sought to curry favor with those they were supposed to be managing.  That would be highly demoralizing and frustrating and if it were widely known that subordinates could act with complete impunity, wouldn’t that have a chilling effect on supervisors doing their job as opposed to leading by appeasement?  I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it if my company allowed this behavior to go unchecked.

What Are Your Thoughts on Facebook Firings?


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Invest It Wisely November 8, 2010 at 11:53 pm

The person does have a right to free speech — and both the employee and the employer have the right to free association. If the employer no longer sees the benefit in engaging said employee, it should not be forced to retain said employee any more than it would be fair to force an employee to stay with a certain employer.


Darwin November 12, 2010 at 12:28 am

Yeah, in western society, people get their panties in a bunch over “wrongful termination” when often times, the employee clearly deserved to be fired. But we’re a litigious nation, and companies often put up with nonsense much more than they should.


Freddie @ Real Estate Investing Business November 9, 2010 at 9:14 am

To me the employee doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The article clearly stated that they employer has a policy in place that says you shouldn’t talk about the business or anything on Facebook and what does the employee do? They violate this policy that they signed on to.

Case closed, your fired!


Darwin November 12, 2010 at 12:29 am

One would think. But after having supervised union employees and seen airtight (very logical and rightful) cases either dropped or overturned in arbitration, the cards are really stacked in their favor.


Roger Wohlner November 9, 2010 at 9:52 am

I don’t know the legalities of Facebook and free speech. To me this case is about the fact that this employee clearly violated a stated company policy and in my opinion should be fired. Further, this employee should be fired for her poor judgement alone. Employees have disgreements with supervisors all of the time. She could have done the mature thing and sat down with her supervisor and tried to discuss these issues. Alternatively should likely could have gone through her union and filed a grievance. This woman used poor judgement and deserved what she got in my opinion. Hiding behind freedom of speech issues is just a smokescreen. With freedom of speech comes responsiblity and the potential consequences of what you say.


Darwin November 12, 2010 at 12:30 am

Well put. Interested to see how this one plays out since it may set the tone for future treatment in the courts.


Chris July 29, 2012 at 8:09 pm

BUT should company policy be in place outside the workplace in your own home . . .
It’s the same principal as them firing the said employee for doing the same at a poker game.


Louna Ronus December 13, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Looking through my news feeds on Facebook one night I found several threads of comments which undoubtedly were directed at me by a fellow subordinate manager of a different department. His friend-base has increased substantially due to a new product the company has developed and this was in clear sight of the potential customers to see including other employees. Two employees in his department started commenting on other threads and a new nickname came out of it. I have a screen print of it all. He soon found out I saw all the comments, un-friended me on Facebook without any apology. I feel he and the other two employees have caused a lot of damage to my professional reputation, but I have yet to act on my impulses to reprimand him and demand a public apology on his own Facebook page. What would you do?


Flexo December 13, 2010 at 9:36 pm

I wouldn’t reprimand him unless he directly reports to you. But, I would tell him that you saved the entire conversation and will be bringing it to his manager’s attention as well as HR. This can have repercussions to your reputation and there should be consequences.


Darwin December 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Yeah, totally messed up. And immature.


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