Thursday, December 20, 2012

The NLRB’s holiday gift: a Facebook firing decision

Earlier today, I suggested that the appropriate gift on the 5th day of Employment Law Christmas is 5 Facebook firings. Today, the NLRB made good on this suggestion by publishing its decision in Hispanics United of Buffalo [pdf].

Hispanics United concerned the terminations of five employees on the heels of a Facebook discussion critical of another employee’s job performance. Last year, the Administrative Law Judge ruled that the terminations violated the non-union employees’ rights to engage in the protected concerted activity.

The NLRB affirmed the earlier decision.

There should be no question that the activity engaged in by the five employees was concerted for the “purpose of mutual aid or protection” as required by Section 7. As set forth in her initial Facebook post, Cole-Rivera alerted fellow employees of another employee’s complaint that they “don’t help our clients enough,” stated that she “about had it” with the complaints, and solicited her coworkers’ views about this criticism. By responding to this solicitation with comments of protest, Cole-Rivera’s four coworkers made common cause with her, and, together, their actions were concerted …, because they were undertaken “with … other employees.” … The actions of the five employees were also concerted … because, as the judge found, they “were taking a first step towards taking group action to defend themselves against the accusations they could reasonably believe Cruz-Moore was going to make to management.” …

The Facebook comments here fall well within the Act’s protection. The Board has long held that Section 7 protects employee discussions about their job performance, and the Facebook comments plainly centered on that subject. As discussed, the employees were directly responding to allegations they were providing substandard service to the Respondent’s clients. Given the negative impact such criticisms could have on their employment, the five employees were clearly engaged in protected activity in mutual aid of each other’s defense to those criticisms.

This case clarifies a two key points for employers.

     1. Employees can engage in protected concerted activity even if their online conversations take place off-duty and via their own computers.

     2. The employer argued that the employees’ Facebook posts lost any protections because they were a form or harassment or bullying in violation of company policy. The Board did not buy that argument, concluding that the National Labor Relations Act trumps any workplace bullying or harassment policy. It did, however, leave open the possibility that objectively and subjectively illegal harassment (that which is on the basis of “race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, or other prohibited basis”) would strip the employees’ comments of their protected status.