Revenge is best served hot after all, and re-Tweeted around the World

The Plough

There are a lot of horror stories out there in Cyberia. A chef fired from an English pub still had control of the pub's Twitter account and used it to tweet his verbal revenge against the pub. A company dismisses an employee for comments posted against a supervisor on Facebook, then gets hit with a civil complaint from the National Labor Relations Board. Any employer/employee dispute that starts small on the Internet runs the risk of going viral.

Social media has benefits and risks for business, but employer-employee ill-relations that end up playing out across the web can create an explosive situation with blowback for both sides.

It's no shock that employees complain about their bosses. Always have, whether it's done sharing beers with co-workers on a Friday night, meeting a friend for lunch, or some other social but mostly private contact. Bosses are just as likely to complain about their employees under similar circumstances. Either way, it's normally not a problem.

Problems arise, however, when someone mistakes social media as the same as social, face-to-face contact. In fact, the two are as different as comparing a whispered conversation to shouting from the rooftop. Both employers and employees need to protect themselves from escalating any disagreement into a virtual, and very public, brawl.

Prevention Key for Employers

The first step for an employer to prevent a conflict with an employee from going viral on YouTube or Twitter is to do your best in preventing the conflict in the first place. Everybody has a bad day and feels the urge to vent, even if it's to vent online. But maintaining good employer-employee relations offline will carry over to online discussions.

On the other hand, the boss shouldn't be too thin-skinned about what their employees post. It's one thing if an employee makes a derogatory comment that damages the company's business. It's something else if she just complains online that she's working too hard or needs a raise. Maybe she does.

Some employers hire services or use special programs to monitor comments about their company made on the web. While helpful to keep track of public opinion and follow any buzz about your products or services, using such tactics to closely monitor Facebook posts made during off-time comes off as oppressive and by itself can lead to employer-employee conflict. If there are already issues, it would be like throwing gasoline on a smoldering fire.

A company needs to balance respect for an employee's private life with the need to protect its business reputation. Advise employees that they should not expect anything they post on Facebook pages or public forums to remain private. While closely monitoring employee Facebook pages is a bad idea, tell your employees that any derogatory comments have their own way of getting back to the boss. If they won't say it to the boss's face, don't say it on line. They probably shouldn't post anything they wouldn't repeat in their next job interview, either. Human resources people are keen on reviewing applicant's Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

Protected Postings

Yet businesses also have to recognize that employees posting on workplace conditions, or an individual who posts on behalf of others to improve workplace conditions, or at least with that intention, are protected under the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB has begun to intervene on about half of the complaints filed against employers involving retaliations for online postings.

Guidelines concerning protected employee behavior online are still evolving, case by case, so employers are safer to interpret discussions on workplace conditions rather broadly. Workers who complain in social media about too much overtime, unsafe practices, rude or demeaning bosses, shoddy products because of cutbacks in quality control, or any other issues that have impact on employees, are likely to be construed by the NLRB as protected employee behavior.

Even name calling, depending on the word use and its context, can be protected. Calling a boss a jerk in a Facebook posting could be protected in the right context, but a more offensive term may not.

The NLRB notes that "mere griping" by one person with no evidence of the griping being done on behalf of or involving others is not protected. Nor are postings that include physical or verbal threats against an employer or co-worker, again depending on the context.

It is unlawful for a company to distribute and enforce a policy that restricts workers' rights to discuss working conditions and other protected speech online, or to fire an employee for engaging in protected behavior online.

The NLRB has released a model social media policy that businesses can follow, but the suggested details of the policy may change as more cases are brought to the board and to the courts.  

Flame Out

A very real risk facing a business is an employee who is so disgruntled, or has already been fired, who sets out to deliberately sabotage your company's reputation or even the company website. Precaution is the key here, but the owners of The Plough, a pub in Oxfordshire, England, apparently misplaced that key.

The owners fired the pub's chef for refusing to work on one of the pub's busiest days of the year, Christmas. Unfortunately, the chef was also the one running the pub's twitter account, and he set the twitterverse ablaze in December by tweeting rants against his old bosses for being heartless, and claiming the meat they served wasn't prime Australian sirloin and New Zealand lamb, but cheaper cuts from a grocery store down the road.

Is this "protected speech" as defined by the American NLRB? Probably not. Would that really matter to you if you were the owner of a restaurant and had no way to stop outrageous tweets on your own Twitter account and reported by news organizations around the world, as happened with The Plough?

If an employee's job description includes posting blogs and twitter feeds, as well as updating your website, don't give him "super admin" status that would allow him to block anyone else from updating the site while he posts whatever comments he wants, or even shuts down the website. As a matter of course, make sure company executives always maintain top level control of their sites.

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