Nov 16, 2010

NLRB Sues Employer for Firing Employee Over Facebook Post

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint against the American Medical Response Company. The NLRB charged that the company committed an unfair labor practice by firing a union employee, Dawnmarie Souza, for criticizing her supervisor on her Facebook page, and by adopting policies regarding blogs and other posted content that improperly restricted employee rights to communicate about their working conditions.

Souza was upset because she had been asked to respond to a customer's complaint about her work, and the company wouldn't allow a representative from her union -- the Teamsters -- to help her prepare the response. That same day, Souza posted negative statements about her supervisor on her Facebook page from her computer at home. Her initial post compared her supervisor to a psychiatric patient; other employees chimed in, and Souza posted more critical comments.  

The NLRB complaint (a copy is available here, at the Labor Relations Today blog) alleges that firing Souza for these posts is an unfair labor practice because it violates her right to engage in protected concerted activity: to communicate with other employees about the terms and conditions of employment. (Although Souza is a union member, this right exists whether a workplace is unionized or not.) And the NLRB isn't just challenging the decision to fire Souza: It also alleges that the company's policies on blogging and Internet posts, standards of conduct, and solicitation violate the law, because they improperly interfere with employees' rights to communicate with each other. Those policies prohibit, among other things, "rude or discourteous behavior"; and "disparaging, discriminatory, or defamatory comments" about the company, coworkers, or customers.

According to the New York Times, this is the NLRB's first complaint involving worker posts on social networking sites, but it isn't the first time the agency has considered the issue. In May of this year, the NLRB issued an advice memorandum -- in another dispute involving a medical transport company, oddly -- in which it found legal an employer's decision to discipline employees for Facebook posts suggesting they might withhold care from patients who personally offended them. Although it would have been illegal for the employer to act based on posts about ongoing labor disputes or the terms and conditions of employment, the employer had the right to act on posts indicating that employees would compromise the quality of patient care.

This case is just the next step in the rules on protected activity, which have continued to evolve so they address all of the places -- actual and virtual -- where employees might communicate. The NLRB previously decided cases about signs posted -- with thumbtacks -- on the company bulletin board, discussions in the locker or lunch room, and meetings on company property. In the past decade, it has had to decide cases on email, electronic bulletin boards, and posts to public websites. Social networking is simply the most recent popular spot for employee discussions.  

This case could also signal the beginning of a big change in the way many employers deal with employees' online activity. While some employers either place no restrictions on employee posts or impose only broad, business-related guidelines (for example, use a disclaimer when you discuss the company, don't reveal trade secrets, and so on), others go much further to prohibit employees from talking about the company at all. If the NLRB prevails, these employers will have to take another look at their policies to make sure they don't infringe on employee rights to discuss the terms and conditions of employment.

To learn more about employees' rights when it comes to posting job-related information on social network sites, check out Nolo's articles Fired for Blogging and Employee Posts on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Blogs.