A federal agency ruled today that it was illegal for a company in Connecticut to fire a woman who lewdly criticized her supervisor on Facebook. In what could easily be the first of many cases of its kind, the National Labor Relations Board argued that Dawnmarie Souza’s Facebook rant against her boss was well within her First Amendment rights.
Souza worked as an emergency medical technician whose boss required her to prepare a report due to customer complaints about her conduct. She alleges she was denied union representation, and from there, took to Facebook to vent.
Posting on her home computer later that day, Souza wrote, “Looks like I’m getting some time off. Love how the company allows a 17 to be a supervisor” (17 is code for psychiatric patient). Souza’s work colleagues also replied to the thread, and she tossed in some vulgar names to boot.
While her former employer maintains that she was fired based on her performance as a staff member, what’s most significant in this case is what it means for employees. Souza is not the first to get fired for this, but she is the first to be defended for it. In this virtual age, companies everywhere are enforcing social media policies and today’s ruling will directly affect how legitimate they are.
“If employees are upset about their supervisor and get together on their own time to talk about him, criticize him, call him names, they can do that,” argues the board’s regional direction Johnathon Kreisberg in a statement to The New York Times. That being, Souza’s former employer’s policy prohibiting employees from negatively portraying the company and its supervisors on the Internet steps well over the line. When it comes to being off the clock, federal labor law allows employees to say most anything that want, but this is the first time the National Labor Relations Board has extended this right to a social networking site.
But don’t take this as the go ahead to blast your entire office on any and every social media site. Rules and regulations surrounding online conduct should be regarded as extremely fluid, and in most cases posting nasty comments about your boss can land you in the unemployment office. According the National Labor Relations Act, a message’s intentions are important, as only those that fall under “the purpose of collective bargaining” are totally safe. It’s a thin proverbial line to draw and one that will probably get thinner.
Facebook is becoming the water cooler – it’s where colleagues interact and gossip, and the government is stepping up to protect that. A formal hearing to decide how true that is will take place in January.