Fired for Facebooking: Nasty Political Posts Could Cost Employees Their Jobs

Experts say employees who offend people online risk losing their livelihoods

By Aliah D. Wright Sep 26, 2016
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Using offensive, vulgar or violent language to express political opinions on social media accounts could not only get employees in trouble with their friends and family but also with their bosses.

Because what we post on the Internet can shape our personal and professional images, writing hurtful or obnoxious posts on Facebook or other social sites may not be a smart thing to do, experts tell SHRM Online—especially when it comes to political opinions.

Consider the following:

  • Pastor Mark Burns of Easley, S.C., who speaks frequently at Trump rallies and was touted by Time magazine as the GOP's most "vocal" pastor, tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton in blackface. The tweet read: "Black Americans, Thank you for your votes and letting me use you again. See you again in four years." The tweet was deleted, and Burns came under heavy scrutiny from news outlets.
  • In California, an employee of the State Board of Equalization tweeted a photo of a blood-splattered hangman with a noose and the phrase "I'm Ready for Hillary" from the Riverside County Republican Party's Twitter account. Nathan Miller, who admitted posting the tweet, resigned from the party position and from his position as a trustee for the Riverside Community College District.
  • Just after the Democratic National Convention,  TV reporter Bobby Hughes was fired from the Fox affiliate in St. Louis, Mo., after joking on Facebook that Michael Brown's mother was at the convention to "talk about the new lead diet she's endorsed. Five servings and you can lose 200 lbs in two years easily." Brown was the teenager shot and killed In Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
  • An Ann Arbor, Mich., mortgage loan officer was fired after she tweeted racist comments about First Lady Michelle Obama during the same convention.
  • West Virginia State Del. Michael Folk, a Republican, was criticized for tweeting that Hillary Clinton "should be tried for treason, murder and crimes against the U.S. Constitution ... then hung on the Mall in Washington, D.C."

HR Professionals Need to Know These Laws

Knowing the law is imperative, attorneys said.

In his blog The Employer Handbook, attorney Eric Meyer, a frequent speaker at SHRM conferences, writes: "Private-sector employees have few, if any, protections for political speech. There is no federal law which specifically forbids retaliation against employees who talk politics. There may be some refuge in the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees who discuss working conditions with one another. Plus, a few states and cities have laws protecting political speech."

However, "some states have laws protecting employees for being fired for legal off-duty activities. Those laws may protect employees who post on their own time," said Donna Ballman, an employee-side employment attorney and author of Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed, or Sue the Bastards (Career Press, 2012).

In an interview with SHRM, Meyer said "most private-sector employers can have a rule banning political discussions at work. Although, I wish you luck enforcing that one.

"Plus, nothing protects hate-speech online. Political or not—even if intended as satire—an employee who offends reasonable people with his online speech risks losing his job."

So, are employers within their rights to fire employees if the employees say something hateful on Facebook or Twitter? 

It depends.

"Whether or not an employee should be terminated based on a comment on social media really depends on the severity and context with which the comment was made," said Brad Stultz, HR director at Totally Promotional, a consumer goods company based in Portland, Ind., in an interview with SHRM Online.

"If the comment was directed at a specific gender, race, nationality or religious group, there might be justifiable cause for termination. In regard to political free speech, employers should have an iron-clad social media policy that outlines the types of statements acceptable when representing the company."

Something else to keep in mind: "As political discourse creeps further into our social and professional lives, we must be absolutely certain that our open discussions don't inadvertently coerce employees into articulating views they'd rather hold privately," Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite, told SHRM. "Just because you can assess a person's political standing by looking at their social profile doesn't mean they want to discuss it with you."

Stultz added that "all HR professionals should consistently review their social media policies to ensure they are compliant with the ever-changing regulations set forth by their local, state and federal governments."

Aliah D. Wright is the author of " A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites." (SHRM, 2013).

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