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Online indiscretions… well, you know the story

laptopWe’ve heard a bunch of stories over the past year about companies firing or not hiring employees, or challenging their claims of illness, over inappropriate online behaviour, particularly comments and photos posted on Facebook and other social networking websites. While the media have made a big deal of these cases, none has had the profile of CNN’s recent firing of Middle East correspondent, Octavia Nasr. The US news giant felt Nasr had compromised her credibility by publicly tweeting her respect for a prominent Islamic cleric on his death. The Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah had ties to controversial political action group Hezbollah.

Where does that particular offence fall? Did it undermine the employment relationship?

Notwithstanding whether such a firing would stand up in Canada (and the widespread condemnation that CNN has received), the message is clear: think twice before you post personal stuff on the Internet, and if you’re still unsure after two thinks, just don’t do it.

I wonder if the reverse holds true for employers and managers? What would happen if a company wrote disparaging comments about its employees on its Facebook page, or if management regularly published lists of weak workers on the company blog? Sounds like that would damage the employment relationship. It would probably be considered harassment, too, and maybe constructive dismissal.

Of course it holds true both ways. In fact, while employees owe their employers respect (both at and away from work), employers owe their employees something more, because the employer is always in the position of greater power. The law and employment contracts attempt to balance this power by preventing employers from acting arbitrarily toward their workforce but still allowing them to discipline and terminate when appropriate.

That’s the question though, isn’t it: what is appropriate? What behaviour deserves punishment? When does a comment deserve termination?

When it comes to poor online judgment, there’s no formula, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ll be seeing a lot of back and forth in the courts in the coming years before anything even close to a standard arises. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just keep my angry thoughts about my boss and co-workers to myself. (Just kidding—I love my work! I am shy about talking about my employer online, though.)

There’s more to this story, too. As I mentioned, CNN is facing a backlash suggesting that the news group acted heavy-handedly in firing Nasr. CNN will get a lot of bad press out of this, and in the age of the Internet, any smaller employer that tries something similar could face a similar public response. I also suggested that Nasr’s firing might not have sat well with a Canadian court. If an employer can argue successfully that an employee has damaged the employment relationship beyond repair, then it can get away with a termination, but a more likely scenario is the employee’s behaviour would warrant a slap on the wrist and some progressive discipline.

What do you think? Can a single comment on Facebook or Twitter be deserving of the ultimate employment punishment? Should employers even worry about what their employees are saying about them online?

Adam Gorley
Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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2 thoughts on “Online indiscretions… well, you know the story
  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks for your comment Sandra! I agree it’s a difficult situation, particularly when it comes to public figures and the media.

    My personal opinion is that CNN should have asked Nasr to qualify her statement and to make a public apology. I think this would have been good PR for the employer and a good lesson for Nasr and all other mainstream journalists in the US. However, I’m not surprised by CNN’s actions, since I think they’re probably out of touch with the “new media”. Moreover, if I understand correctly, employers have much more leeway in dismissing employees than in Canada. I think they wanted to protect their reputation, but in the short term, they’ve done just the opposite.

    As for Hezbollah’s status, I’ll avoid that discussion. 😉 I wonder though: could Ms. Nasr have commended a member of any other controversial group without suffering the same fate?

  • Sandra says:

    I’m a bit torn about this issue. On one hand, I support CNN’s decision to terminate Nasr (Yes, I said, I agree with CNN) because she wasn’t just some employee, she was a well known reporter. Reporters are supposed to be objective. I think if it was a CNN employee that no one knew, a behind the scenes kind of employee, like for example one of their IT people, that posted that same comment no one would care. Nasr, as a public figure had a greater responsibility.

    But, on the other hand, I don’t think making comments online should be grounds for dismissal. An employee should not be afraid to post his/her thoughts on their personal Facebook/Twitter account. It’s their *personal* space and it’s no different than say, uttering a thought amongst some friends at a party. What if the employer overheard that comment or found out what the employee said from someone else? Could the employee be fired in that case? To me, the employee’s Facebook account is like that party – only there are a lot more people at the party and what you say can be shared with others a lot quicker. That said, my personal Facebook account is private and I am friends with only a few of my coworkers.

    P.S. The United States (and Canada, since 2002) considers the Hezbollah a terrorist organization, which is why action against Nasr was so severe.