US Labour Board Says You Can Criticize Your Boss On-line; But Should You?

By Jason Menard

Just over two months ago, I wrote about how poor choices when using Facebook could prevent you from getting a job in the future. And while that may be true, a landmark case in the U.S. may define whether or not what you say on Facebook could get you fired from the one you already have!

The story in question is about a Connecticut emergency medical technician who took to the Internet via Facebook to criticize her supervisor. Long story short, she was fired and now the National Labor Relations Board in the U.S. said that the firing was illegal as it violated the EMT’s First Amendment rights.

The First Amendment gets held up any time there’s a potential conflict over freedom of speech, but there are some grey areas here (or perhaps, gray, since we’re talking about U.S. law).

One of the quotes that the media has reported was this EMT stating how she “love[s] how the company allows a 17 to become a supervisor.” Apparently, in EMT parlance, a 17 is a psychiatric patient. And I don’t know about you, but unless her supervisor actually has a documented history of being institutionalized, I think there’s a safe case for libel – and that’s not covered under the First Amendment.

The National Labor Relations Board likened this statement to employees gathering together off of work hours to discuss their management. We don’t fire people for bad-mouthing their co-workers in the privacy of their own homes or over a couple of beers, the thought seems to be, so why would this not extend to a social networking site?

It’s an interesting question – and there are a lot of murky waters to wade through to find a definitive answer. Should it be a fireable offence to criticize your company, your boss, or your co-workers? No. But, again, libel and slander are illegal and if you’re engaging in those activities, whether it’s on Facebook for the former, or around a physical water cooler for the latter, then you should be held accountable for your actions.

If you don’t like something your company is doing, should you be fired for saying it? Again, no. And, in some cases, this might be welcome by particularly forward-thinking companies. After all, employee morale and opinion is not something that’s always easy to gauge. If you can improve your business by learning what’s bothering your employees, then that would be a good thing. However, human nature does come into play here. Can you be sure that your supervisor or manager won’t have their opinion of you coloured by some flippant comment you’ve made to your friends on Facebook?

And if you’re dumb enough to share proprietary information or corporate secrets, then don’t be surprised if you have plenty of time on your hands to engage in all the social media you want.

Should the EMT have been fired? Probably not. A warning for the “17” comment would have sufficed. After all, she posted on her own time, from her own computer. There was no misuse of company equipment involved. She was venting and sometimes we all need to let that out.

Like most things, in the end, it all comes down to common sense. The Internet has a long memory – and those Facebook posts or Tweets that one makes in the heat of passion have a tendency of smouldering long after those initial flames of anger have died down. And, like the woman in my earlier post, the true damage may not be done to one’s current employment situation, but it may appear in the future when prospective employers are using social media and the Internet to try to gain a greater appreciation of who you are as a person beyond the cover letter and resumé that you’ve provided.

Finally, just because we have the right to free speech (we Canucks are covered by the Fundamental Freedoms component in Part I of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: and that includes freedom of thought, belief, AND expression!) doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to wield it as a weapon. Although we all have the right to wander through the streets sharing our opinions about everyone we see, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea – especially if you enjoy retaining all of your teeth.

The old adage states that there is a time and a place for everything. Perhaps, in this hyper-connected age, we should add another noun to that sentence – a medium. A few comments made to a co-worker slip harmlessly into the ether, but those same words when delivered not by voice, but through a keyboard, can have much longer-lasting ramifications.

Facebook may be the virtual water cooler, but as we’re seeing more and more each day, it can pose some very real problems for people who post first and ponder the consequences later.

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