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Can employers publicize terminations via social media? Dallas’ police chief says yes

In the name of transparency and building public confidence in the local police force, Dallas police chief David O. Brown has begun posting announcements of staff terminations and demotions on the social networking services Twitter and Facebook. Chief Brown is surely blazing a trail with the controversial practice, but it remains to be seen whether others will follow—or if it’s even legal.

The tweets announcing the discipline are straightforward, like this example:

I have terminated SC William Wesley for his involvement in a domestic disturbance which resulted in a police response.

— Chief David O. Brown (@DPDChief) December 30, 2013

The Facebook announcements offer greater detail.

Each tweet is followed by a notice that the offending employee has the right to appeal the discipline, like so:

Under Civil Service rules, SC Wesley has the right to appeal his discipline.

— Chief David O. Brown (@DPDChief) December 30, 2013

This is public information that should be accessible by contacting the police or making a freedom of information request; it might even be compiled in a police force’s annual report, and it is fairly common to read about police misconduct and discipline in the newspaper. But police services are notoriously close with their information, so Chief Brown’s decision to provide it readily and openly has taken many by surprise. Responses are mixed, with some questioning whether the police force is exposing itself to lawsuits, particularly if the employee in question wins an appeal.

Of course, police services are staffed by public servants, and it is easier to make a case for this fairly radical type of transparency when the employees in question are paid with tax dollars and the public can expect access to a reasonable amount of information about their discipline. Whether this practice would be acceptable in the private sector is a different story.

Let’s look at what motivates such a practice in the first place.

The Dallas Police Department hopes to increase public trust in the force by demonstrating that police staff are not above the law and the department will discipline staff who break the law, fail to “serve and protect” citizens and don’t live up to the expected standard of performance. It seems like a noble effort—the sort of step that few organizations, public or private, would be willing to take, even if it were legal.

Nonetheless, it’s not hard to find an example of private organizations where such a practice might be valuable. Particularly since the recent recession, many members of the public have wondered how large financial institutions have treated employees who played a part in losing their customers’ money. And these organizations could certainly use a bit of a boost in public confidence. It is common enough for an organization to publish a vague press release indicating that an executive has left the company. Would it make sense for businesses to announce publicly when an employee has been disciplined for playing fast and loose with clients’ money?

As an employee’s work record is usually considered private information, consent would be key. Private sector employers would likely have to include in their employment agreements a provision permitting them to publicize the reasons for discipline including termination. Otherwise, such a practice would surely violate the employee’s right to privacy, besides being in bad faith and potentially damaging the disciplined employee’s personal reputation. Of course, even with an employee’s consent it might be in bad faith to publicize certain details of the employee’s discipline, but it would be up to an adjudicator to make that decision.

I’m sure the Dallas Police Department has consulted its legal counsel and prepared for legal challenges, and it will be interesting to see how the practice plays out. Chief Brown must be doing something right though. The Dallas Police Department has been making these public announcements since 2011. That it is only reaching a broader audience now might be a sign that it’s not so controversial after all.

Let me know what you think about publicizing terminations and other employee discipline via social media. Is it an acceptable practice? Can it help improve an employer’s reputation and the public’s confidence? What other acts of radical transparency have you seen?

Adam Gorley
First Reference 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 “Can employers publicize terminations via social media? Dallas’ police chief says yes
  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks for your comment Michele!

    Indeed, I wonder what type of legal advice and policy are backing up this policy.

  • Michele Migus says:

    This is just asking for trouble. There are major privacy issues here that go beyond the terminated employee to his family, etc. In addition, if the termination is overturned, then how do you undo the damage done? It is bold that he wanted to manage public perception of the organization by showing they took strong action, but I would not recommend following his lead.

    Posting such information will also signal to employees that commenting in social media on work-related events must be acceptable, too. There needs to remain boundaries of what is appropriate and what is not.