Employees Behaving Badly – The Social Media Edition

twitter fire

“Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun” – Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable   

It seems like every week there is another story gone “viral”  of an employee posting something colossally stupid or offensive on a social media site, getting fired, and the employer left scrambling to repair its damaged reputation.  Here are just a few of the recent gems:

1.  ESPN suspended outspoken anchor Keith Olbermann for engaging in a heated twitter debate with Penn State University (“PSU”) students.  After a PSU alum brought to his attention an annual fundraiser at PSU that raised $13 million for pediatric cancer, Olbermann tweeted “PSU students are pitiful  because they’re  PSU students – period,” and called another student a “moron.”  Olbermann later apologized (via Twitter of course), calling his comments “stupid and childish.”

2.  A school bus driver thought it was a good idea to take a “selfie” holding a full bottle of beer to her lips as she sat behind the driver’s wheel, and then post it on Facebook.  Nothing says “student safety” like a brewski and a 15,000 pound vehicle, right?  The school district promptly fired the driver  after concerned parents rightfully went ballistic.  Fun Fact:  the driver never actually opened the bottle.

3. A Texas teenager fired off an expletive filled tweet complaining about starting her new job at a local pizza joint the next day, complete with a string of “thumbs-down” emoji characters:

fired

The boss saw it and tweeted back: “no… you don’t start the ** job today! I just fired you! Good luck with your no money, no job life.” Not to be outdone in this social media throwdown, the boss added some crying emoji faces. Not surprisingly, his corporate ownership was none too happy with the public airing of the dispute (think angry emoji faces).

So how can employers reduce their legal and reputational risks from their employees’ social media abuses?  For starters:

1. Adopt and enforce a clear social media policy. (Easier said than done given the NLRB’s views on the subject).

2. Train employees to think twice before tweeting, posting or sharing. And then think a third time.

3.  Train employees to ask themselves:  is this tweet/post/share something that I would say or do in front of my boss, my spouse, my parents, or my kids?  If not, don’t tweet/post/share it.

4.  Train employees to further ask themselves: is this tweet/post/share something that I am comfortable explaining and/or defending to the individuals mentioned above, or to a judge,  jury, or the mainstream media? If not, don’t tweet/post/share it.

 5.  Train employees to remember that although “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” what happens on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram will stay on the internet forever.  Or, as they used to say,  “this will go on your permanent record.”

6.   Bottom line –  Everyone (from the CEO to the rank-and-file worker) should recognize “you are what you tweet,” and that all must choose their words, videos, pictures, and yes, emojis, carefully.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
 Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
 @wagelaws

 

 

Texas-Sized Employment Terminations Via Twitter

Human Resources Managers know the drill when they want to terminate an employee.  They bring the individual into a private room, tell him he is terminated, cite a couple of reasons for the termination decision, maybe give him a termination letter, and escort him out of the workplace.  Thereafter, the termination decision and reasons for it are typically only shared with those in management with a legitimate “need to know.”

But as they say, “everything is bigger in Texas,” including apparently, the way one announces an employee’s termination.  And in “BIg D” they have taken it to a new gunslinging level.

Dallas, Texas Police Chief  David O. Brown routinely announces the terminations of his law enforcement officers via his Twitter account, @DPDChief, to his 7,000 plus “followers.”  Limited by Twitter’s 140 characters, he then posts lengthier explanations for the termination on  Facebook for several thousand “friends.”

One recent example:

“I have terminated ######### for public intoxication, damaging a person’s property, and making offensive contact with a person.”

(I omitted the name – blame the lawyer in me).

Part of me likes the boldness of the strategy, and the stated goals of ensuring government accountability and transparency.  It also sends a strong message to other employees not to engage in the same conduct.  And the Dallas Police Department is doing some very creative things utilizing social media as a law enforcement strategy to catch bad guys.

But is it a sound personnel practice?  Let’s see…

Humiliating the employee to thousands of strangers?  Check.  Inviting a potential defamation lawsuit?  Check.  Locking in the employer’s position in future litigation in 140 characters or less?  Check.  Giving the City’s lawyers nightmares?  Check.  (Of course, many people would say giving lawyers nightmares is not necessarily a bad thing).

I would assume the Chief vets his Twitter posts with his legal counsel before their mass distribution.   But as anyone who uses Twitter knows, typos occur, mistakes can be made, and words can be misinterpreted.  And in employment lawsuits, words matter.

Chief Brown found out the dangers of Twitter recently:

Chief David O. Brown ‏@DPDChief  Mar 11

Today I terminated Officer Edgar Garcia for being involved in a disturbance resulting in his arrest for assault Family Violence.

Chief David O. Brown ‏@DPDChief  Mar 11

Correction: the officer terminated was Officer Edgar Garcia Martinez  

I hope the Police Department doesn’t employ an “Officer Edgar Garcia.”

From a purely legal perspective, the risks of such a practice seem to greatly outweigh any potential benefits.  Many times I have defended employers in lawsuits where it was clear the employee pursued litigation simply because he/she felt “humiliated” in how the termination was handled.  The employee was angry, feeling either the termination meeting was unduly harsh, or embarrassed by being escorted off the premises in full view of co-workers.

Now imagine the employee’s motivation to sue after having his termination and the reasons for it publicly aired to thousands of people.  Oh, and the employer still needs that little thing called “evidence” to back up the assertions in the tweet.

As any cowboy will tell you, “when you mess with the bull, you sometimes get the horns.”  Save yourself a legal goring – don’t post terminations or the reasons for them on social media sites.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter
:  @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws