And the cases continue to roll in….
Last week, we blogged about a recent NLRB complaint filed against an employer who fired an employee for criticizing her boss on Facebook. Since then, on November 8th, an Arbitrator in Washington, D.C. issued a decision reinstating an employee who had been fired for remarks made on Twitter. On the surface, one might conclude that this is just an example of different forum, different outcome. However, upon closer inspection, you begin to see some semblance of a common thread.
According to this Arbitrator’s decision, Radio Free America (“RFA”) is a non-profit company that broadcasted news to certain Asian countries “where people do not have a free press.” The claimant in this proceeding, King Man Ho, was a broadcaster at RFA, who, as part of his duties, covered a speech given by Secretary of State Clinton about Internet freedom. Ho wrote a piece regarding the speech and some of the discussions that took place afterward with Secretary Clinton, after which certain subjects of his piece apparently complained about the contents of the article and Ho’s journalistic ethics.
Ho began using his Twitter account to try to contact the complaining parties, and became increasingly agitated first about his inability to reach those parties, and then about the accusations themselves. The decision goes through a lengthy discussion about the sequence of events that followed, including Ho’s communications with his boss over the frequency and nature of his continued tweets. RFA ultimately terminated Ho’s employment due to what it deemed to be “just cause” insubordination for disregarding a directive to stop posting unprofessional and inappropriate tweets, and later to stop tweeting altogether about the complaints lodged against his article.
While the Arbitrator did find that RFA “shall” issue a written warning to Ho “directing him not to engage in public debates with news sources,” the Arbitrator ruled that there was no just cause for the termination and ordered that Ho be reinstated to his job with back pay, benefits and seniority. The decision suggests that it was not at all clear that Ho was insubordinate to his employer or violated any clear directive or policy of the employer, as the Arbitrator noted in the end: “RFA should address a clearer understanding of the role of [the company’s Director Communications and External Relations] and the occasions when he should become involved with criticisms or questions raised by outside news sources and listeners.”
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development? This decision should not be read simply as an example of one legal arbiter refusing to allow social media activity to prompt an employment termination. On the contrary, there seems to be an underlying concern in the decision about the extent and nature of several of Ho’s tweets. Rather, the crux of the Arbitrator’s reasoning is what should be taken away.
Prior installments of the “Social Media Advisor” noted that courts have trended toward allowing discovery of social networking sites, albeit with the common thread that some showing must be made before free and unfettered disclosure is allowed. Prior posts have also noted that, while a trend suggests that adverse employment action may be taken as a result of an employee’s social media use, care must be taken not to otherwise violate express prohibitions in the law (such as protected class discrimination/harassment and NLRA concerted activity protections), and that employers maintain effective corporate policies. This arbitration decision highlights the latter point.
By ultimately refusing to find just cause for the termination, the Arbitrator here essentially determined that the company did not create and communicate a sufficiently effective directive or policy that was clearly violated by Ho’s conduct. Therefore, it is critical to understand the need for you to create, publish and enforce clear directives and policies that address your employees’ social media use. That way, you will not be faced with uncertainty about whether statements or conduct actually violate something in the first place when you wish to make an employment-related decision as a result of those statements or that conduct.