Can Facebook Cost Us Our Jobs?
It is no secret that social networking websites have become forerunners in the world of communication between colleagues, friends, family, and acquaintances. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, FourSquare, and other similar sites make it easy for us to communicate with each other quickly and constantly with the click of a button. They help us connect with new acquaintances and also reconnect with old ones. But while all of this appears to be a beneficial tool for our personal lives, it is becoming apparent that it can also be a danger to us in our professional lives. Since the explosion of new social networking sites began, employers have used information posted on people’s Facebook pages to either prescreen a potential employee or evaluate a current one, making hiring and termination decisions based on posts that they see. Not only is this practice a violation of employees’ rights to freedom of speech, but it also begs the question: can Facebook cause us to be unemployed?
The answer to that question appears to be yes. Numerous cases have been seen by the courts on both a state and federal level regarding the termination of an employee due to posts or comments on their Facebook pages that their employers happened to find. Most commonly it is schoolteachers that find themselves facing a lot of pressure to monitor their online activity on social networking sites. A teacher in Pennsylvania was suspended by her district for posts on her Facebook that referred to her students being “out of control” or “frightfully dim” (Pike). The teacher hadn’t named any students in specific in her post, nor had she named the school at which she taught. The post was also made outside of the workplace, on her own personal computer, using her own personal internet service.
Her suspension is questionably illegal; she worked for a government that has technically violated her right to the freedom of speech. But her suspension is also a result that is not uncommon for teachers all over the country. Another teacher from Paterson, New Jersey, Jennifer O’Brien, was suspended from her position after parents of her students saw an unfavorable comment she made saying that she was “the warden of future criminals,” in reference to their children on her Facebook page and reported her to administrators (Townes). The post was questionably racist – the school at which she worked is predominately African-American. But when appearing in court, she defended herself by saying that the students were constantly unruly and that one had even hit her. Her comment, therefore, could technically be considered one that was made more for the purpose of “discussing working conditions,” which is a union-related activity that cannot be denied to members of a working union (Pike).
Although that was not the case that O’Brien argued for herself in court, an EMT from Connecticut that was terminated from her job for remarks on her Facebook about her supervisor did use that defense. She had apparently made an “angry and mocking description of the dispute and her supervisor on her Facebook page,” which had then been commented on by fellow employees who also had snide remarks to add to the post (Pike). When it finally reached the eyes of her supervisor, she lost her job, but not without a fight; she filed a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board through her union, claiming that by terminating her for a comment made about her working conditions while outside of the workplace constituted violating her right to engage in “union-related activity” (Pike).
After settling the case outside of court, the company she worked for agreed to change their policy that they had initially said she violated which prohibited “making disparaging, discriminatory, or defamatory comments when discussing the Company, or the employee’s superiors, co-workers and/or competitors,” which broadly incorporated speaking about working conditions and was therefore illegal (Pike). Closely related to this case is one in which a bus company’s policy prohibited, “employees from using social media to ‘target, offend, disparage … customers, passengers or employees’,” which is illegal on the same grounds that speaking about working conditions was illegal for the Connecticut EMT (Pike). The NLRB has been forced to reconsider what is legal for a company to include in their social networking policies.
It is not just comments on Facebook that can get employees in trouble though. Pictures also have the power to cause a termination of a job if it is considered indecent by an employer. One such instance includes a nurse from Northampton General Hospital who was fired after a picture one of her coworkers posted on Facebook was seen by her boss. The picture was taken in the hospital ward and her bra was visible in the picture. Although her employer clearly had a right to deem her conduct while in the hospital inappropriate, another picture that had been uploaded showed her and her two colleagues fully dressed while working in the presence of a patient, and she was eventually reinstated (“Nurse Who Showed Bra On Facebook Reinstated”).
While it can’t be definitively stated that Facebook can cause us to become unemployed, it also can’t be said that it doesn’t. Although we may believe that our personal lives should be completely separated from our professional lives, it is not unfair to say that employers have the right to be in full knowledge of the true demeanor of the people that they trust to do good work for them and represent their company. As social networking sites become more intertwined with life in the workplace, company policies regarding their use and employee conduct on these sites will have to adjust to fit the era of mass social media connection that we are heading towards.
“Nurse Who Showed Bra On Facebook Reinstated.” Nursing Standard 23.5 (2008): 9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
Pike, George H. “Fired Over Facebook.” Information Today 28.4 (2011): 26. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
Townes, Glenn. “Paterson schoolteacher under fire for racist comment on Facebook.” New York Amsterdam News 10 Nov. 2011: 4. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.