Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is social media a valid vehicle for harassment complaints?

A nuclear-medicine technician posted the following three items on her Facebook wall:

(At 9:00 am) Sara DeBord loves it when my boss adds an extra $600.00 on my paycheck for hours I didn’t even work ... awesome!!

(At 1:37 pm) Sara DeBord is sooo disappointed ... can’t believe what a snake my boss is ... I know, I know everyone warned me:(

(At 2:53 pm) Oh, it’s hard to explain. . . . basically, the MRI tech is getting paid for doing MRI even though he’s not registered and myself, nor the CT tech are getting paid for our areas ... and he tells me ‘good luck taking it to HR because you’re not supposed to know that’ plus he adds money on peoples checks if he likes them (I’ve been one of them) ... and he needs to keep his creapy hands to himself ... just an all around d-bag!!

Many of her coworkers saw the posts, including the “snake” of a boss with the “creepy hands.” Three different times, she denied authoring the posts when asked by HR. The hospital fired her a week later.

In DeBord v. Mercy Health Services of Kansas (10th Cir. 11/26/13), the court affirmed the dismissal of DeBord’s retaliation claim, concluding that thrice lying about posting information on Facebook, in addition to other violations, justified her termination.

In analyzing the retaliation claim, the court noted that the “Facebook post was not in accordance with Mercy’s otherwise flexible reporting system for sexual harassment complaints, and the post, by itself, did not provide any notice to Mercy.” Nevermind that, according to the court, “Mercy's management first received notice of this behavior … through a publicly available message on Facebook.”

An employer has a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to remedy harassment that it knows about, or should know about. This obligation not only exists when an employee makes a formal complaint under an employer’s “reporting system,” but also when an employer otherwise learns that harassment might be occurring. An employer cannot go into ostrich-mode in the face of workplace harassment.

My fear is that the DeBord court’s statement about the Facebook post not being in compliance with the employer’s “reporting system” could lead to employers thinking that it’s okay to ignore harassment complaints made on an employee’s social media page. Ignoring information about harassment is not okay. An employer does not have an obligation to look for problems on every employee’s Facebook, Twitter, etc. However, once an employer becomes aware of harassment or other unlawful conduct, it cannot pretend it doesn’t exist.