The Fine Line: Social Networking Rights vs. Company Rules

By Nikki Broderick ‘14Staff Writer

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against a company that they believed wrongfully terminated an employee, Dawnmarie Souza, for criticizing her boss on Facebook. One comment included that the worker couldn’t believe that “they allow a 17 to be a supervisor,” 17 referring to a company term used to reference psychiatric patients. The ambulance service company, American Medical Response, stated that Souza was fired for “multiple, serious complaints about her behavior.”

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was designed to protect labor unions and investigate unfair labor practices. In filing a complaint against American Medical Response, the NLRB claims that when the company terminated Souza, they violated the National Labor Act which gives workers the rights to form unions and discuss working conditions. The company infringed on this right as well as her First Amendment right to free speech. The complaint catapults the NLRB into uncharted legal territory regarding social networking sites and the right one has to express their opinion on the Internet.

American Medical Response’s rules prohibit employees from portraying the company’s image in any way on social media Web sites, leading the company to believe that they did not violate Souza’s federal rights by any means. The NLRB, however, views this rule as “overly broad”, and will follow through with their complaint until Souza, who was fired last December, has been reinstated in her former job.

The fine line here lies in social networking and proper employee conduct. Personal pages provide a certain air of freedom, and many people don’t think before they post exactly what they’re feeling. Many also don’t realize the backlash they could face if the people they’re upset with see their protests online. Let’s use some common sense: if an employee has a problem with management, they should talk to management. Writing of their complaints online instead of directly addressing the issue doesn’t solve any problems.

In my opinion, American Medical Response’s rule prohibiting employees from representing their company’s image online isn’t too broad. In fact, it’s overly simple. Don’t write about the company on your Facebook, tweet about it, blog about it or do anything else that might land you into trouble. This rule doesn’t violate federal rights; employees are still allowed to speak of their grievances, but they need to direct it to the proper channel.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media Web sites bring in a new era for the workplace. The fine line between what an employee is and is not allowed to say isn’t defined with new technology. Instead of talking at the water cooler, employees can write about their opinions on their personal pages, taking full advantage of the First Amendment Right to freedom of speech. But if they want to stay employed, they probably shouldn’t.