An employee sacked for making critical comments about a supervisor on Facebook has reached a settlement over the dismissal. But the deal means the case stopped short of a legal ruling on the subject.
The case involved Dawnmarie Souza who worked for the ambulance organization American Medial Response of Connecticut. She was suspended and then fired over comments made on her Facebook account in which she twice posted what the National Labor Relations Board called a “negative remark”; PC World reports the post contained “dick” and “scumbag.”
The board agreed to file a complaint against the employer. However, the two sides have reached an agreement under which the company will:
revise its overly-broad rules to ensure that they do not improperly restrict employees from discussing their wages, hours and working conditions with co-workers and others while not at work, and that [in future] they would not discipline or discharge employees for engaging in such discussions.
The key there is that existing labor laws only protect discussions about work conditions while employees are in the workplace.
While the settlement appears to be a blow for the position of the employers, there are several factors that mean this isn’t necessarily — as some have implied — a green light to let rip on your boss when you get online.
For example, one of the key points of this complaint was that Souza was refused permission to have union representation when brought in to explain her comments. While that was settled in a separate agreement, the company may well have considered it was on to a sure loser over that issue and decided to cut its losses on the entire case.
It’s also significant that the issue never got as far as a court ruling. While the outcome will mean employers can be more confident in expecting complaints for similar activity in the future, were a case to make it as far as a judge, this wouldn’t be classed as a formal legal precedent.
The case also leaves a gray area about what is and isn’t acceptable in public comments by employees. While this particular employer has accepted that discussing work conditions in an online forum is acceptable, there’s no guarantee that a worker crossing the line into derogatory or even defamatory comments would escape disciplinary action.
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