Think Before You Type
“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt,” is a well-known quote that’s often attributed to either Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. Regardless of who said it, the point is clear, yet is seldom heeded.
It used to be in the workplace that if someone typed something they shouldn’t have, such as in a paper or email, then they could often try and retract or delete it or make the recipient swear that he or she wouldn’t share it. However, in the age of social media, this often can’t be done and when something is either tweeted or shared on Facebook, then numerous people see it at the same time and often share it with others.
The media is quick to point to celebrities (or those who think they are) with tweets that border on the absurd. They are stupid at best and racist, sexist, or just plain offensive at worst. But what happens when an employee does this? Obviously, it reflects poorly on their employer, but should an employer take action and if so, what?
An article on Society for Human Resource Management’s website shrm.org titled, What to Do About Employees' #StupidTweets, has a few examples of bad tweets. One of my favorites involves a person who made an offensive tweet, then immediately boarded a trans-continental flight and did not (or was not able to) see the feedback from this tweet. The backlash was swift and heated. In fact, it prompted the person’s employer to issue a tweet in which they apologized and explained that the employee who tweeted the original message was unreachable. That employee was later fired.
Sometimes, however, disciplinary action isn’t so clear-cut. While it may be a bad idea to criticize the company, or boast of a questionable activity, that doesn’t automatically translate into being fired and the text may even be considered protected speech.
First and foremost, the employer should conduct an investigation and verify the exact content of the message rather than rely on word-of-mouth. Employees should remember that the Internet saves everything, so even if something is deleted, it can often still be found. Consequently, employers should remember that not everything on the Internet is true and someone’s account could have been left open or hacked. Similar to a claim of employee misconduct, if the post warrants action by the employer, they should conduct an interview to avoid any doubt about whether that employee was the actual person who posted the message. That is, unless the post mentions violence or threats. In that case, urgent and immediate action may be necessary.
Assuming that the post does not fall into that latter category, an employer should consider several factors, including whether the post discloses corporate secrets or confidential/proprietary information, personal information about another employee (e.g., Social Security numbers, health conditions, etc.), whether it mentions something illegal, contains language that’s racist, sexist, offensive, or harassing, etc.
Finally, there may be a time when the content of a social media post or tweet is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In such a case, the employer would be limited in any response they could take. Examples of this would be comments or criticisms of management, wages, or benefits.
There are certainly boundaries between protected and lawful speech, versus those that are offensive or just plain dumb. Employers should create a social media policy for their employees and inform them of it so that those boundaries are rarely, if ever, crossed.