Firing of Employee For Posting Profanity-Laced Facebook Comments Ruled Illegal

Posted by on Jun 22, 2017 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

Social media seems to be a favorite forum for employees to complain about their workplace.  Firing employees for posting work-related social media messages can land an employer in trouble.  But is management absolutely forbidden from firing employees for making offensive comments on social media?  Is there a line employees may not cross?  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals took up this question recently in NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, 855 F.3d 115 (2d Cir. 2017).

The Facebook Firing

In early 2011, New York catering company Pier Sixty was in the middle of a tense organizing campaign that included management threatening employees who might participate in union activities.  Two days before the unionization vote, Hernan Perez was working as a server at a Pier Sixty Venue.  His supervisor, Robert McSweeney, gave him directions in a harsh tone.  On his next work break, Perez posted this message on his Facebook page:

Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER don’t know how to talk to people! ! ! ! ! ! Fuck his mother and his entire fucking family! ! ! ! What a LOSER! ! ! ! Vote YES for the UNION! ! ! ! ! ! !

Perez knew that his Facebook friends, including ten coworkers, could see the post, although he allegedly thought his Facebook page was private.  Perez removed the post three days later, but not before it came to management’s attention.  Perez was fired after an investigation.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided that Pier Sixty unlawfully terminated Perez in retaliation for “protected, concerted activities.”  Pier Sixty appealed to the Second Circuit and the NLRB filed an application for enforcement of its decision.

Evolving Standards of Whether Obscene Comments Lose Protection

Employees have the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  But if an employee’s actions lose NLRA protection if they are “so opprobrious and egregious as to render him or her ‘unfit for further service.’”  See Atlantic Steel Co., 245 NLRB 814 (1979).  Pier Sixty argued that Perez engaged in “opprobrious” conduct by posting obscenities on Facebook.

The Second Circuit noted that the test for opprobrious conduct was unsettled.  The NLRB traditionally used the Atlantic Steel four-factor test that considers the location and subject matter of the discussion, the nature of the employee’s outburst, and if the outburst was provoked by an employer’s unfair labor practice.  But in 2012, the NLRB began using a “totality of the circumstances” test in social media cases to address the unique context of social media and allay concerns that the Atlantic Steel test did not adequately consider employers’ interests.

Second Circuit Sidesteps Review of NLRB’s New Test

Without addressing the validity of the “totality of the circumstances” test, the Second Circuit found “substantial evidence” that Perez’s comments were not so egregious as to lose NLRA protection.  Perez’s message, though vulgar, included workplace concerns and was part of a “tense debate over managerial mistreatment in the period before the representation election.”  Pier Sixty also did not previously discipline employees for widespread profanity in the workplace.  Finally, Perez’s comments were not made in the immediate presence of customers and did not disrupt the catering event.  Despite deciding that Perez’s conduct was not “opprobrious,” the court noted that the case sat “at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments” and reminded the NLRB to develop a test giving weight to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests in preventing employee outbursts in the presence of customers.

Takeaways

Pier Sixty teaches that an employee may not be fired simply for making profanity-laced comments on social media if the comments are related to the workplace.  The fact that the comments are accessible to members of the public, including customers, is not determinative.  So at what point do an employees’ obscene comments lose protection?  That remains an open question after Pier Sixty, but the court’s comments inspire hope that the NLRB will craft a more employer-friendly standard in the future.

 

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Take Control of Negative Online Comments

Posted by on Apr 19, 2017 in Advertising and Marketing, Employment and Labor, Social Media

“Why did you fire my wife?”  Bradley Reid Byrd posted this question on the Facebook page of Cracker Barrel.  Byrd wanted to know why his wife was let go after working for the restaurant chain for 11 years.  The post remained largely unnoticed for about a month until a comedian uploaded a screenshot of it to his Facebook page and his 2.1 million followers.  The internet outrage machine then kicked into high gear.  Multiple hashtags were created (#JusticeForBradsWife, #BradsWifeMatters, #NotMyCountryStore).  Someone started a “Brad’s Wife” Facebook page.  A Change.org petition demanding answers from Cracker Barrel was launched.

Social media makes it easy to channel the furor of the masses against an organization.  The instigator could be anyone with some connection to the organization – a former or current employee, their relatives, or a customer.  What should an organization do if it finds itself at the center of an internet controversy?

Responding to negative online comments is a delicate exercise, and missteps early on can  damage an organization’s reputation tremendously.  From a human resources perspective, the first step is to control who, if anyone, should respond.  Employees should be prohibited from making “rogue” responses on behalf of the organization.  Employers should state this restriction clearly in their social media policy and train employees on the importance of compliance.

After deciding who will handle the response, the next step is figuring out what to say.  The knee-jerk reaction to inflammatory or untrue online comments might be to threaten a defamation suit against the posters, but that can backfire and damage the organization’s reputation even more.  Sometimes the best response is to say nothing and let the controversy pass.

If a response is warranted, consider who the audience will be and how they might respond to it.  Pointing out flaws in the negative comments could be perceived as overly defensive.  On the other hand, respectfully acknowledging the negative comments or posting positive content about to organization could defuse the controversy.

Whatever the response, it should be the product of careful consideration.  On the internet, it takes just a few clicks to set off a firestorm.

 

 

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NLRB Advice Memorandum Provides Guidance on How to Revise an Illegal Social Media Policy

Posted by on Mar 22, 2017 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

On January 1, 2017, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Office of the General Counsel released an advice memorandum (dated September 22, 2016) reviewing the social media policy in Northwestern University’s revised Football Handbook.  The memorandum contains valuable guidance in an area full of uncertainty, as the NLRB has struck down seemingly common sense social media policies because of their potential to chill employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to engage in “concerted protected activities.”  Section 8 of the NLRA prohibits employees from restraining employees from exercising their Section 7 rights.

According to the memorandum, Northwestern voluntarily revised its Football Handbook after receiving a charge alleging that the handbook violated the NLRA.  The advice memorandum reviewed the revised handbook for compliance with the NLRA.  Assuming for the purpose of the review that Northwestern’s football players are “employees” under the NLRA, the advice memorandum concluded that the revised social media policy passed muster.

The memorandum reprinted the original language of the policies along with the revisions in redline, as follows (deleted language in strikeout and new language in bold):

[W]e are concerned about… protecting the image and reputation of Northwestern University and its Department of Athletics and Recreation. . . .

Publicly posted information on social networking websites can be seen may be regularly monitored by any person with a smart phone or internet access, including individuals a number of sources within Northwestern University (e.g., Athletics Department, Student Affairs, University Police). . . .

Northwestern student-athletes should be very careful when using online social networking sites and keep in mind that sanctions may be imposed if these sites are used improperly or depict inappropriate, embarrassing harassing, unlawful or dangerous behaviors such as full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment, unlawful activity or any content that violates Northwestern University, Athletics Department or student-athlete codes of conduct and/or state or federal laws.

….

Do not post any information, photos or other items online that contain full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment or unlawful activity could embarrass you, your family, your team, the Athletics Department or Northwestern University.

Although the advice memorandum did not elaborate on why the original policy could violate the NLRA while revised policy would not, it provides important clues on drafting lawful social media policies.  The modifications to the policy generally substituted vague terms like “inappropriate” and “embarrassing” with descriptions of the content that the policy prohibits.  For example, the revised policy specifically prohibits social media posts depicting “nudity,” “racial or sexual epithets,” and “underage drinking,” among other things.  The revised policy also eliminated protection of the employer’s “image and reputation” from the description of the policy’s purpose.  In previous guidance, the NLRB has determined that employers may not require employees to refrain from engaging in activity that generally damages the employer’s reputation because that could be construed to prohibit “concerted protected activity” such as criticism of work conditions or compensation policies.

The recent advice memorandum reinforces the need to be precise when drafting a social media policy.  Experienced counsel can assist in identifying the types of social media content that the NLRB has allowed employers to prohibit employees from posting.

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Six Years Later, NLRB’s Social Media Guidelines Still Confound

Posted by on Sep 21, 2016 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

youre-fired

Six years ago, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) became one of the first governmental agencies to regulate social media use in the workplace.  In 2010 and 2011, the NLRB issued a series of guidance memos and decisions sketching the contours of acceptable limitations on social media conduct of employees.  Largely aimed at protecting the right of employees to act together to improve their working conditions and terms of employment – what Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) calls “protected concerted activity” – the NLRB’s social media guidelines can be downright frustrating for employers.  Conduct that might seem proper to ban, like making defamatory comments about management personnel or discussing confidential company information online, could be protected under Section 7, according to the NLRB.

Little has changed after six years.  Three recent cases show that the NLRB is still as confounding as ever when it comes to regulating social media work rules.

  • In Chipotle Services LLC d/b/a Chipotle Mexican Grill, Case No. 04-CA-147314 (Aug. 18, 2016) the NLRA struck down parts of Chipotle’s “Social Media Code of Conduct” that prohibited employees from posting “incomplete, confidential or inaccurate information” and making “disparaging, false, or misleading statements” about Chipotle, other employees, suppliers, customers, competitors, or investors. Chipotle fired an employee for violating this rule by posting tweets that criticized Chipotle’s hourly wage.  The NLRA concluded that the rule was unlawful because it could reasonably chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.
  • In G4S Secure Solutions (USA) Inc., 364 NLRB No. 92 (Aug. 26, 2016), the NLRB ruled that a private security company’s policies concerning confidentiality and social media postings violated Section 7 rights of employees.  The confidentiality policy prohibited employees from making “public statements about the activities or policies of the company[.]”  The NLRB found this rule overbroad because it could be understood to prohibit discussion of rules concerning employee conduct, which is a term and condition of employment.  Also unlawful was a social media policy banning social media postings of pictures of employees dressed in their security guard uniforms.  The NLRB rejected the company’s argument that the policy protected a legitimate privacy interest.
  • In Laborers’ International Union of North America and Mantell, Case No. 03-CB-136940 (NLRB Sept. 7, 2016), the NLRB found that a union violated the Section 7 of the NLRA by disciplining a union member who criticized union leadership for giving a journeyman’s book to a mayoral candidate who had not gone through the union’s 5-year apprenticeship program.  The comments were posted on a Facebook page accessible to approximately 4,000 people, some of whom were union members.  Even though certain aspects of his comments were false, they did not lose protection because they were not “knowingly and maliciously untrue.”

Does your organization have similar social media rules concerning anti-disparagement, confidentiality, or privacy?  If so, it might be time to freshen up your social media policy with the help of experienced counsel.

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Court Allows Terminated Employee to Pursue Discrimination Claim Based on Inconsistent Enforcement of Social Media Policy

Posted by on Oct 19, 2015 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

You’ve adopted a social media policy after hearing all the warnings about employees behaving badly on social media. But do you enforce the policy consistently? Failure to do so can be risky business, as illustrated by a recent federal court decision, Redford v. KTBS, LLC, 2015 WL 5708218 (W.D. La. Sept. 28, 2015). The court in Redford allowed an employment discrimination claim to continue because of management’s uneven enforcement of its social media policy.

The social media policy of KTBS, a Louisiana TV station, instructs employees not to respond to viewer complaints on social media. Chris Redford, an on-air crime reporter for KTBS and a white male, posted a negative comment on his Facebook page in response to a viewer’s comment on a KTBS story. Redford was fired for violating the KTBS social media policy.

Redford sued KTBS for race and sex-based employment discrimination. Redford pointed to KTBS’ treatment of two other employees for their social media conduct. Lee, an on-air personality and an African-American female, responded multiple times to negative viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page. She received numerous warnings from management before being fired on the same day as Redford. Sarah Machi, an on-air personality and a white female, responded negatively to a KTBS viewer’s comment on her personal Facebook page, but received no warning or discipline. Based on this evidence, Redford argued that KTBS fired him not for violating the social media policy, but to prevent a potential lawsuit by Lee for race or sex discrimination. According to the court, Redford had a viable claim that he was treated less favorably than Lee and Machi because of his race or sex.

KTBS argued that it took no action against Machi because she posted her comments on her personal Facebook page, which was set to “private” so that only her Facebook friends could access it. Redford’s Facebook page did not have privacy filters turned on, and he often used his page to promote his work at KTBS. Since KTBS apparently considered comments posted on an employee’s “private” Facebook page to be outside the scope of its social media policy, the court reasoned that KTBS’ stated reason for firing Redford could be pretextual if Redford’s Facebook page was considered “private.” This issue had to be resolved at trial, so the court denied summary judgment to KTBS on the pretext issue.

Redford is a good reminder of the importance of consistent enforcement of social media policies. Even-handed enforcement is made easier by clearly spelling out the scope of the policy. If the policy makes a distinction between “company” and “personal” pages, for example, describe the specifically and consider providing examples. Ambiguity and inconsistency are your worst enemies when it comes to enforcing a social media policy.

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