We’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?
Human Resources and Compliance Editor