Let Employees Gripe on Facebook

December 1st, 2011

Earlier this year, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ruled that five employees fired by a non-profit after airing complaints about their jobs on Facebook must be rehired.  Hispanics United of Buffalo terminated the employees for criticizing work conditions on a Facebook comment thread. The NLRB judge determined that the National Labor Relations Act protected these employees’ off-hour gripes about working conditions. Furthermore, he noted, employers who seek to punish workers for speaking out on Facebook may be violating the law.

No one can say yet if this ruling marks a judicial precedent covering all cases involving free speech and social media, but employers have been warned. Although going online and complaining about working conditions may be legally acceptable, even the NLRB judge cautioned that divulging confidential company information or defaming a supervisor is still grounds for termination.

But before you start furiously scrolling through every Facebook thread that includes the names of your employees, take a deep breath.  It’s actually a good thing to have the legal ramifications of this spelled out. With this in mind, your HR department can specifically indicate that–as part of your company policies–restrictions on the use of social media should not be interpreted as limiting an employees’ right to discuss conditions of employments online. Instead, focus on a policy that forbids online speech that discloses proprietary information or defames members of the executive team. Make it explicitly clear that this will not be tolerated. Just be sure you understand that, per the NLRB ruling, online dialogue about working conditions is regarded–for the time being, at least–as “protected speech.”

Bring back the complaint box?

Dissatisfied employees may be less inclined to use social media to grumble and complain if there’s an alternate outlet on company grounds. Making a complaint box available is “old school,” but it can send a powerful message as well: Is there some aspect of working conditions that prevents you from doing your job the way you’d like to?  We want to know.  Of course, this means someone in your HR department has to take ownership of the complaint box–reading employee complaints regularly, encouraging more input and, most important, acting on complaints whenever possible. All it takes is one or two situations where you or your executive team acknowledge an existing problem and take steps to correct it.

Once employees see that complaints dropped in the box actually get listened to, they’ll be far less inclined to air their dirty company laundry online.

Meador Staffing’s comprehensive Staffing Resource Library offers an array of resources to help you become a “best-of-class” employer.  Find out more.