Employee Social Media Griping: Can An Employer Terminate Employees Because of Their Social Media Posts Without Violating Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Social Media is the new water cooler conversation. It enables and facilitates conversations that years ago would have taken places at the old-fashioned water cooler. In today’s world of Facebook and Twitter, employee complaining is instantly, electronically and permanently transmitted to the world. Social Media users think less about their posts and disclose more so that a simple gripe monologue is turned into dialogue – on steroids – with the world. Such platforms encourage employees to blur their personal and professional lines of behavior and blurt out what is bothering them without engaging their higher level thinking tools.

With seven hundred and fifty million people actively using Facebook, there is a significant chance that a post about working conditions, compensation or other issues related to their employment will spark a conversation with an employee’s colleagues, and such conversations may constitute concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act.

The question remains, if your employees say something negative on Facebook about your company, their fellow employees or their supervisors, can you terminate without running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act?

The answer depends on the facts surrounding the post(s). The test is whether the employee is engaging in activity solely for himself or on behalf of other employees.

Individual social media griping activity that is the “logical outgrowth of concerns expressed by the employees collectively” are considered “concerted” and protected under Section 8(a)(1) of the the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”). “Concerted activity includes ‘circumstances where individual employees seek to initiate or to induce or to prepare for group action’ and where individual employees bring ‘truly group complaints’ to management’s attention.” Meyers Industries, 281 NLRB 882, 885 (1986)

The following factors should be considered:

  1. Is the post concerted activity?
  2. Is the post directed at other employees?
  3. Does the post suggest that the employees take some action?
  4. Is the employee posting a Spokesperson for Common Concerns?
  5. Does the post arise out of a previous union or employee group?

What this means is that not all online posts are protected. Two Advice Memorandums issued this July by the National Labor Relations Board, Office of The General Counsel regarding non-union companies provide guidance. In JT’s Porch Saloon & Eatery, Ltd., the NLRB found no concerted activity when a bartender complained to his step-sister on Facebook that he had not received a raise in five years, he was performing waiter’s work without tips, the Company’s customers were “rednecks” and he hoped the customers choked on glass as they drove home drunk. The Board found that the termination was not in violation of the Act because the post was not discussed with any other employees, before or after he wrote it and there had been no employee meetings or attempt to initiate group action regarding the tipping policy.

Similarly, in Wal-Mart, the NLRB found no concerted activity when a customer service employee, after an interaction with the Assistant Manager, posted the following comment on his Facebook page: “Wuck Falmart! I swear if this tyranny doesn’t end in this store they are about to get a wakeup call because lots are about to quit.” The Facebook friend responses were mixed with some friends responding favorably and others not. The customer service employee responded further by making negative comments regarding his supervisor, using profanity and claiming false advertisement on behalf of Walmart. Of course, a co- worker “friend” gave a copy of the post to the supervisor at issue and the supervisor required him to take down the post, suspended him for a “decision day,” and prepared a discipline report.

In defense, Walmart claimed that the postings were not concerted activity for mutual aid or protection, and even assuming so, the Charging Party’s use of profanity was so “opprobrious” as to deprive him of the Act’s protection. The Advice Memorandum found the customer service employee’s comments were solely about him and were “mere griping.” The comments did not look toward group action.

In contrast, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint alleging that the Hispanics United of Buffalo unlawfully discharged five employees because they took to Facebook to criticize working conditions, including work load and staffing issues. In this case, an employee, in advance of a meeting with management regarding working conditions, posted an allegation that employees did not do enough to help the organization’s clients. Five employees responded and defended citing work loads and staffing issues. The organization terminated the five defending employees because their defense constituted harassment of the employee originally mentioned in the post. The National Labor Relations Board Complaint claims that the Facebook discussion was protected concerted activity. Outcome of this complaint is not known at time of this post.

Social Media has been likened to a “loaded gun.” For all its benefits, it can be quite dangerous to the employer as well as the employees if it is not used appropriately. It is in the employer’s best interest to establish legal social media policies and train employees on the ramifications of their social media use as it relates to their employment.

However, employers should not impair an employee’s ability to act in concert or to effect some change in the terms and conditions of the workplace.

Just as employees should think before posting on Facebook, employers should think carefully before disciplining employees to avoid running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act. As unwise as it may be to complain about one’s employer on Facebook, it may be unlawful for an employer to discipline an employee for voicing such a complaint.

For more information and guidance, please check out the National Labor Relations Board Acting General Counsel Report on Social Media Cases.

Posted by Attorney Ruth A. Binger. Binger serves both emerging and mature businesses concentrating in corporate law, intellectual property and technology law, and labor and employment law. Her commitment to the success of small to medium-sized businesses, and her understanding of multi-faceted issues inherent in operations, are what distinguish Binger’s practice.

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