On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board announced settlement of a landmark case dealing with employees' ability to criticize and complain about their employers on Facebook and other social networking sites. The case involved an employee of a Connecticut ambulance service who complained about her supervisor on her Facebook page, and engaged in an on-line discussion with co-workers about the supervisor's behavior.
The employer fired the employee, claiming violation of the social networking policy contained in its employee handbook. The employee filed an administrative complaint with the NLRB, contending that the National Labor Relations Act protects her ability to criticize the employer and to engage in discussions with other employees regarding work issues.
The NLRB contended that these legal protections extend to employees' use of social networking sites, even where these sites can be accessed by the general public. The employer claimed that the employee's conduct in this case was not protected, because her postings were intended to hold the supervisor up to ridicule rather than engaging in a discussion over working conditions.
In the settlement, the employer agreed to revise its social networking policy to make clear that it does not prohibit legitimate discussion or criticism of terms and conditions of employment. This settlement preserves the employer's right to take appropriate disciplinary action in the event that employees engage in taunting, ridicule, harassment, or conduct that goes beyond complaints about work, even if their conduct contains elements of such complaints.
The NLRB and federal courts are likely to struggle with the exact line between legitimate criticism of working conditions and inappropriate or insulting behavior. Employers should review their social networking policies to make sure they cannot be construed to prohibit any discussion among employees of work or working conditions.