Last week, I had the pleasure of presenting a three-hour seminar on social media and employment law at the Labor & Employment Advances Practices (LEAP) Seminar. The one issue that garnered the most discussion from a room packed with HR professionals, business owners, and in-house counsel was the NLRB’s recent foray into the regulation of social media policies. Almost to a fault, a room of informed and knowledgeable businesspeople entered the session with the notion that the NLRB had banned companies from implementing social media policies that restrict or limit employees’ speech about their employers. I did what I could to dispel that notion. Until the Supreme Court tells me otherwise, I will not be convinced that a business cannot fire an employee who trashes its reputation, or the reputations of its management personnel, online.
My back-and-forth with the conference attendees got me thinking (and tweeting with fellow blogger Daniel Schwartz) about the law of unintended consequences. Because of how the NLRB press-released this settlement, and how the media reported on it, public perception is that social media policies cannot restrict any employee speech. For example, last week a post at Above the Law quoted a Seton Hall law professor from a CBS News interview: “Souza’s case ‘has expanded the free speech rights of American workers…. If they are communicating about the workplace, and they’re talking about their supervisors, then it’s a protected activity.’” This quote accurately summarizes the public (mis)conception about the Souza case.
If the NLRB has succeeded in scaring employers, then hasn’t the NLRB won this point? Even if rational minds conclude that employees will never be allowed to defame or disparage their places of employment or the people who work there—even in the name of protected, concerted activity—hasn’t the very threat of an NLRB charge chilled employers from implementing social media policies that regulate this type of speech?
We’ll never know if the NLRB intended this chilling effect, but the NLRB’s publicity machine has done enough for corporate America to believe that the social media sky is falling, legitimately or not.