Apr 08, 2011

Twitter Post Reprimand May Lead to Labor Complaint

A reporter for Thomson Reuters says that she was reprimanded for a Tweet -- and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is ready to make a federal case out of it. According to the New York Times, a supervisor at Reuters invited employees to send posts to a company Twitter address, giving their views on how to make Reuters the best place to work. Deborah Zabarenko, an environmental reporter and the head of the Newspaper Guild at Reuters, sent this post: "One way to make this the best place to work is to deal honestly with Guild members." (The Guild is the union that represents journalists at Reuters.)

Apparently the company didn't intend for employees to be quite so frank. Zabarenko said that her bureau chief called her at home the next day and informed her that "Reuters had a policy that we were not supposed to say something that would damage the reputation of Reuters News or Thomson Reuters." 

The NLRB apparently plans to file a complaint against the company, alleging that it violated employees' rights to engage in protected, concerted activity to improve the terms and conditions of employment -- in other words, that it committed an unfair labor practice. Based on the Times article, Reuters sounds fairly surprised by the allegation, partly because its social media policies are similar to those at many other companies.

But the NLRB action isn't such a surprise, given the agency's apparent interest in employee use of social media to air complaints about their employers. Just a few months ago, the NLRB filed its first complaint involving social media, against a company that fired a worker for criticizing her supervisor on Facebook. In that case, the agency's complaint went further than the treatment of the employee to allege that the company's policies on blogging and Internet posts were improper, because they were so broad as to prohibit protected employee activity. (The case settled, and the company agreed to revise its policies to make sure employees wouldn't be disciplined for protected posts.) 

It seems more than a little strange that Reuters would invite comments on how the company could improve if it didn't expect to hear any criticism. And Zabarenko's comment, though it implies that the company isn't dealing fairly with the union, is at least polite and restrained, more than can be said for much of what ends up on social networking pages. Ultimately, if a company reprimands an employee for expressing support for a union and criticizing the way management is dealing with that union, it should probably not be that surprised to hear from the NLRB.