It’s every manager’s worst nightmare to discover that their team member has taken to a very public social media platform like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat to make negative comments about them or their company. No wonder, many businesses invest quite a bit of time monitoring employee social media profiles, keeping a weather eye on any inappropriate commentary or behaviour online.
In the United States, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that employees who utilise social media to criticize their employer or a co-worker are protected under the law if more than one employee participates. According to the act:
Sec. 7. [§ 157.] Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment.
For instance, two employees at a business took to Facebook to comment from their personal computer after working hours – “X feels that we don’t help our clients enough – My fellow coworkers, how do you feel?” and they got into a detailed discussion about it – would this be ground for firing?
If one looks at the wording of the NLRB act, such Facebook discussion could be interpreted as “employee’s right to self-organization” and “concerted activity for the purpose of collective bargaining” because the complaint is job-related. More importantly, since such criticism could potentially cause them to lose their job, this is a discussion which has a clear purpose of providing mutual aid or protection, and therefore the entire activity can be protected under the law.
It concludes that if more than one employee is taking to social media to express their unhappiness over a particular work-related issue, firing all of the perpetrators is not the answer and instead it could open lead to a potential lawsuit. To say it best, it is like slapping a quick fix bandaid for a deeper cut.
In fact, the NLRB has already reviewed 129 cases involving social media so far and recently appointed a department specifically to deal with issues related to work and social media. Some organisations have also ruled against employers who fired workers for complaining on social media sites about work conditions.
See also: Does Social Media Recruiting Work?
In Singapore, the Employment Act protects employees seeking to address grievances, but it does encourage them to address these grievances via internal channels before seeking external redress. The Act also stipulates that employers investigate any potential incidents of misconduct, which could include participating in damaging social media chatter, before taking disciplinary action or terminating an employee and that employees can seek the assistance of the ministry of manpower if they feel they have been dismissed unfairly. This too afforts a measure of protection to employees who are seeking to address genuine grievances. This however does not mean that employees have carte blanche to say whatever they want on social media.
With the tight law of employment practices, an employer should address and act accordingly by revising employment policy and handbook for such a negative event to not occur and downgrade the employer’s image. The proper disciplinary procedure, such as setting social media rules, communication guidelines, and defamation, should also be conducted to avoid the bigger legal problem.
An employer should include social networking in disciplinary and grievance policy, giving clear examples of what will be regarded as gross misconduct. For instance, posting derogatory or offensive comments on the Internet about the company or a work colleague will be processed under X and X disciplinary.
Once the rules are created and reviewed by the authority, employers should make it clear when employees will be seen as representing the company and what personal views they can express. As an example, some employees are forbidden from expressing any political views related to a company. An employer should also be clear about what it means by defamation and how it expects employees to help protect the company or organisational brand.
Likewise, make sure to have direct forms of communication in expressing the rules, many of the causes of conflict at work can be resolved by face-to-face interaction.
Employers and employees should be aware that their online behaviour could break defamation, data protection, or privacy laws which have been stated in each country’s Data Protection and Privacy Act. Therefore, it is essential for both employer and employee to always be cautious of any online records made.
The bottom line is that HR professionals, managers, and business owners need to be aware of Social Media, its reach and impact, and take steps to educate employees on what they can and can not do in this space, what they can and can not say. It is in everyone’s best interest for a company to take the time to develop a Social Media Policy, and depending on the nature of the business, to even organise Social Media seminars where employees can be educated on what social media is, and on how they can use social media in a way that will benefit their business objectives by advocating the brand online, becoming brand ambassadors for the business, and even participate in content marketing activities.
At last, when an issue does arise on social media, sometimes firing the employee(s) might not necessarily be the best option. If they are voicing their views on your business, it is worthwhile to investigate if there is any validity to what is being said and address the problems being identified. In the end, you will be left with an employee who will now take to social media to rave about your track record as a wonderful employer and how you fixed their issues.
In the social world, a problem-solving hero always gains more respect.