Yes, you CAN discipline employees who abuse social media

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Earlier this week, the internet was all a buzz with the news that an employer had settled with a former employee it fired for criticizing a supervisor on Facebook.

If you think that this settlement signals that employers are powerless to discipline employees who criticize their employers online, think again. Just ask a Philadelphia-area teacher who got tagged for criticizing her students on her personal blog.

More on this story and what it means for employers, after the jump.

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On February 10, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jeremy Roebuck posted a story at Philly.com about Natalie Munroe, an area teacher who wished in her personal blog that she could call students “ratlike,” “frightfully dim,” or “dunderheads” on their report cards.

Ms. Munroe also wrote that she wished she could leave the following comments for students so that parents could gain further insight into how their children were performing in school:

  • “Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)”
  • “Rude, beligerent, argumentative fuck.”
  • “Utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.”
  • “I called out sick a couple of days just to avoid your son.”
  • “There’s no other way to say this: I hate your kid.”

Disclaimer: About ten minutes after I decided to do a post about this story, I received a call from my stepbrother, Steven Rovner, an attorney in Bucks County, PA. Small world. My stepbrother represents Natalie Munroe. Steven and his client were interviewed on Fox and Friends on February 14, 2011. Below is a clip.

Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com

Here are some videos of local news coverage of Ms. Munroe:

And here is a clip from the Fox and Friends Show with an interview of one of Ms. Munroe’s former students

Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com

Philly.com reports that Ms. Munroe’s school suspended her after administrators learned of the blog, earlier this week, as students discovered it and quickly began passing it around. One even created a Facebook group under the title “Join if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Natalie Munroe.”

Ms. Munroe had been blogging since August 2009.

Ms. Munroe has since removed her blog, but you can see a cached copy of her inflammatory post here. A copy of noteworthy things about Ms. Munroe’s blog:

  • She generally blogs about worldly topics that have nothing to do with teaching.
  • Ms. Munroe created this blog post at school, presumably utilizing a school computer and the school’s network.
  • On this particular post, Ms. Munroe failed to include a disclaimer that clarified that her words were her own and should not be attributed in any way to her employer.

Ironically, Ms. Munroe had warned her students about irresponsible social networking. The Pennsylvania State Education Association also has a resource to encourage safe social media for educators.

Employers CAN discipline employees who abuse social media.

IMH (not legal-advice-giving) O, none of the bulleted points above are of any moment in this particular situation. And even though Ms. Munroe’s school does not have a social media policy, I can understand why the school suspended with pay (and, I assume, will eventually fire) Ms. Munroe (unless the collective bargaining agreement provides otherwise — e.g., progressive discipline).

This is not the first time that a Philly-area teacher was disciplined for a blog post. Last April, a local school fired a teacher for criticizing a student presentation. And in Ohio, a teacher was placed on administrative leave after a student saw a picture of the teacher’s penis on a school-owned iPad.

Although this teacher was allowed to continue her career after home-made pornographic films in which she starred were found on her classroom computer.

So why is the Munroe situation any different than the one with the employee who criticized her supervisor on Facebook, which settled earlier this week? Especially considering that both employees work in unionized workplaces. The answer is in Mike Vandervort’s “Don’t believe the social media hype! You can still get fired for saying dumb sh*t on Facebook!“:

This [settlement] actually had very little to do with the concept of free speech. It dealt with a very esoteric legal standard called protected concerted activity (PCA), which is governed under the National Labor Relations Act and applies to all employees, unionized or not that are protected by the NLRA. PCA occurs when a group of employees engage in the act of discussing terms and conditions of employment with the intention of trying to improve or protect them.

Take a note, that doesn’t mention “free speech” anywhere, kids. It doesn’t say it is okay to call your boss an asshole, or mock his or her toupee. It is wages, hours and working conditions, and more importantly, it entails the people discussing do something to change or protect those things. It isn’t just complaining, although complaining probably won’t get you fired. Other stuff still can, so be careful about what you say!

What can employers take away from this?

First and foremost, get a social media policy. Just last week, I spoke to a group of 50-or-so teachers about social media and the workplace. I gave my spiel about how teachers should never friend students on Facebook and that employees, generally, need to be responsible when they publish content on the internet. I also emphasized that abusing social media could lead to discipline.

Does that mean an employer needs a social media policy in order to discipline an employee for disparaging the company, its customers, vendors, or, in this case, students?

No.

However, a good social media policy doesn’t just contain rules. It contains guidelines to educate employees about how to use social media responsibly. In Ms. Munroe’s she would have helped herself by abiding by one of my favorites:

“Think twice before you hit ‘send’.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGAzIWFQdt8
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  • Joe Kehoe

    Yet this is free speech and more than the it is acts done in her private life. With this idea an employer can control a person’s actions 24/7 while not being on the clock. When I am off the clock…unless there is a clause in the contract, any actions done on my own are not subject to employer rules. The exception here would be defamation but that is about a legal construct and not a rule imposed by an employer. If the employer wants to tel me what I can or cannot do away from the workplace they can pay me for my tim