Workers may have a right to gripe about jobs on Facebook

A lot of companies assume it’s okay to fire or discipline employees who complain about their jobs on Facebook or other social media sites. But in some cases, disciplining an employee for a Facebook rant could violate federal labor law, and the employee might be able to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board…even if he or she doesn’t belong to a union.

In the past year, more than 100 complaints have been brought before the NLRB over “Facebook firings.” In about half the cases it reviewed, the NLRB issued a civil complaint.

In one of the first cases, a paramedic was fired after she called her supervisor a “scumbag” and a “17” (code for a psychiatric patient) on Facebook. The ambulance company ended up settling the complaint with the government.

Federal law makes it illegal for companies to discipline workers for “protected concerted activity.” That means that workers have a right to discuss their conditions of employment with each other, try to speak on behalf of other workers about workplace conditions, and attempt to improve things for other workers.

If a Facebook rant falls into any of those categories, it may be protected.

For instance, the paramedic was unhappy about being reprimanded earlier for a customer complaint, and made the “scumbag” comment during an online discussion with other employees. The NLRB decided that discussing a supervisor’s actions with co-workers was “protected activity.”

As a general rule, as long as workers are commenting on workplace issues with each other or hoping to improve work conditions generally, they can even call supervisors names or bad-mouth the company in certain ways – although they can’t make verbal or physical threats.

On the other hand, if workers are just griping to their friends outside of work about sometime that only affects them personally, and they aren’t trying to improve general conditions or speak for other employees, they aren’t protected.

For example, a BMW salesman in Chicago was fired after he made two sarcastic posts on Facebook. One mocked his employer for serving hot dogs and bottled water at a sales event for luxury cars. Another showered a picture of a customer’s 13-year-old son driving an SUV into a pond.

The result? A judge found that the hot-dog post was protected (because other employees were also complaining online about the sales event). But the salesman could be fired for the pond photo because it had nothing to do with his working conditions.