Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Are you better off without a social media policy?

A few months ago—following an attack by the NLRB by what it perceived as an overly broad social media policy—pundits were screaming that the sky was falling on these new-breed policies. Now, the NLRB is starting to provide some clarity on the misuse of social media by employees.

After the Arizona Daily Star fired a reporter based on the content of his tweets, the employee filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. While the company lacked a social media policy, it did warn the reporter about his tweeting; it ultimately terminated him for ignoring those warnings.

The NLRB—in an Advice Memorandum from the its General Counsel [pdf]—concluded that the termination did not violate federal labor laws:

In this case, even if the Employer implemented an unlawful rule, the Charging Party was terminated for posting inappropriate and unprofessional tweets, after having been warned not to do so, i.e. for engaging in misconduct….

We further conclude that the Employer did not implement an unlawful rule. In this regard, we acknowledge that, in warning the Charging Party to cease his inappropriate tweets, and then discharging him for continuing to post inappropriate tweets, the Employer made statements that could be interpreted to prohibit activities protected by Section 7.

However, those statements did not constitute orally promulgated, overbroad “rules.” Thus, the statements were made solely to the Charging Party in the context of discipline, and in response to specific inappropriate conduct, and were not communicated to any other employees or proclaimed as new “rules.” … [I]t would not effectuate the purposes and policies of the Act to issue a complaint where the statements were directed to a single employee who was lawfully discharged.

In other words, because the employer lacked a policy, it directed its social media proscriptions only to the fired employee, and the employee was fired for ignoring warnings, the termination did not implicate the employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity. One can speculate that if the employer had a social media policy, this employer might have had the same potential overbreadth problem as American Medical Response.

This guidance from the NLRB begs the following question: are you better off without a social media policy, instead treating employees’ (mis)use of social media on an ad hoc basis? I think not. Despite the NLRB’s current hostility towards social media, employees need direction. They need to understand the set of rules under which they are playing, so that an employer can apply a termination or other needed corrective action fairly and without surprise.

It is possible to draft a social media policy that provides sufficient guidance to employees, protects employers from rogue conduct, and passes muster under the NLRB’s current iteration. Besides, the policy direction of the NLRB is a lot like the weather in Florida—if you don’t like it, wait 5 minutes and it will probably change.

[Hat tip: Employer Law Report]

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or