FaceBook’s Negative Ripple-Effect

Watch out Leaders!  Will it become legal for your employees to harass you in public?  This situation suggests that it might….

In a recent employment law case reported by the NYT and others, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that an employer illegally fired an employee for disparaging comments that she made about her supervisor.  The employer maintains that the employee had received numerous complaints about her behavior.  They also held her accountable for her public posting to FaceBook of negative comments about her supervisor.

The NLRB said that the company policy of avoiding disparaging comments about co-workers was too broad, and that the employee’s right to free speech was violated.

The employee stated that the supervisor was a psychiatric case; this comment drew several supportive responses [from co-workers?].

COMMENTSOn the one hand we have an employer’s attempt to protect itself by establishing a company policy that mandates employees avoiding commenting in a disparaging manner toward other employes.  I imagine that the company put this policy into place to avoid having to defend itself from accusations that the company permitted an environment that was not politically correct.

On the other hand, we have an employee who has a right to free speech.  Regardless of the lack of common-sense shown by the employee in publishing these comments on FaceBook where it could get replicated innumerable times via the Internet, employees should have the right (within bounds) to express their opinion about working conditions, their company and the competence of their supervisor.  How and to whom those opinions are expressed have moral, ethical, policy and legal implications, but the right to express them cannot be infringed.

An NRLB appeals board will decide whether the expression of those opinions in a quasi-public forum like FaceBook is permissible, or if it is something that can be circumscribed by company policy.

Irrespective of any given company policy, people can and will express opinions about leaders in online forums.  Managers and leaders should understand that employees, associates, peers, customers, and vendors can (and likely will) breach the wall of presumed private comments and actions.   If those comments are positive, then no harm and all the better.  But if those opinions are disparaging (whether true or not), then this affects the leader’s reputation, credibility, and overall effectiveness in their role as an leader.

Bottom-line:   The leader’s operating presumption should be that nothing a leader does or says is private;  all actions will be considered “fair” for public comment by someone, including the fitness of the leader for their role.  While this may have a chilling effect on leadership, it is recommended to regulate behavior accordingly.  The mnemonic must be that “Everything you do is being watched by someone, and could become public at any time.”

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