Why Should Businesses and Employees Fear Social Media?

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“Free Speech” is one of the most over used and misunderstood terms around. Nothing is really free. There are costs associated with everything, including speech.

First, most people don’t understand that “free speech” refers to limitations on government interference with speech. It’s not a free pass to go out and say whatever you want to whomever you want with no repercussions. At the same time, the National Labor Relations Board has held that some employee speech is protected, regardless of whether they work for a public or private employee. But using social media to air out your employment grievances can be a hazardous course of action.

A few weeks ago The New York Times published an article by Steven Greenhouse titled Even if It Enrages Your Boss, Social Net Speech Is Protected. The article is about some recent National Labor Relations Board rulings that provide protections for employees who use social media sites to speak out about work conditions, but it highlights the thin line between speaking out and just venting. The Board’s decisions distinguish concerted employee activity (which is protected) with a lone employee complaining about his/her job (which is not), but the distinction is fact specific.

Words are often subjective. And, on the internet, the written word lasts forever (or at least a lifetime). That makes it difficult to advise either a business or an employee about what generally can and can’t be done. It also makes it difficult to take back or hide things that may be misconstrued. It might seem like the rules of common sense apply. Businesses shouldn’t unilaterally try to quash the voices of their disgruntled employees. Disgruntled employees shouldn’t publish every complaint online.

Lucky for lawyers, common sense is not very common.