Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Can You Be Fired For Your Facebook Posts? Yes (With Exceptions)

Do I really have to tell you to watch what you say on social media? Apparently I really do because I run into people all too often who were fired for inappropriate postings, emails, texts, or other comments. My best advice is this: don't put anything in writing that you don’t want posted on the front page of the company newsletter.

Examples of social media firings I've heard of that stand out are posting cruise pictures while on FMLA leave (doh!), posting a foul curse-laden rant about the company (probably legally protected), posting a photo of a nude museum statue (a coworker complained of sexual harassment even though they weren’t FB friends), and posting pictures of an office party gone wild (with some resulting retaliation by a boss captured on film). Basically, I’d say use your judgment and think twice, then think again before you post, whether pictures or just your thoughts. If you don’t think it would go over well on the company newsletter front page, don’t post it.

That being said, although HR does get involved in employee social media posts, 90% of the time it’s none of their business. And the NLRB would agree with me to the extent that employees have the right to gripe about and discuss working conditions. However, if the comments are racist, sexist or otherwise demonstrate that you are inclined toward unlawful discrimination or harassment, then I’d say it depends on the situation. You might be someone HR would want to give extra scrutiny to regarding your workplace behavior. 

But if you posted, say, a Nazi symbol on your Instagram but acted respectful and considerate of coworkers at all time, then I’d go back to my position that it’s none of HR’s business. On the other hand, posting a Nazi symbol, sexist comments or other evidence of a bias means that, if HR is watching or finds out about it, they’re on notice of the employee’s propensity to discriminate. If you do it at work, then the company could be strictly liable. So it’s a balancing act. You probably want to avoid being on that HR tightrope by watching what you post.

Most times it’s better for HR not to know what people are posting unless it somehow becomes disruptive at work. If HR is checking employee social media, they may accidentally find out about your disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation or other protected status and subject the company to potential discrimination claims.

If HR is going to scrutinize social media, personal emails written on work devices or other things that employees may think are none of their business, then HR should make a written policy and put people on notice. Otherwise, it will become a morale issue.

Some states have laws protecting employees for being fired for legal off-duty activities. Those laws may protect employees who post on their own time. 

For political posts, some states have laws that may help. For instance, in Washington State, it's illegal to retaliate against employees for failing to support a candidate, ballot position or political party.
California, Colorado, New York, North Dakota and Louisiana, say it's illegal to retaliate against an employee for their off-duty participation in politics or political campaigns. In Florida, it's a felony to "discharge or threaten to discharge any employee in his or her service for voting or not voting in any election, state, county, or municipal, for any candidate or measure submitted to a vote of the people." Here in Broward County, it's illegal to fire employees based upon political affiliation.

So you do have some legal protection for some social media posts. However, use caution, especially during political season.

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I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.