Over the last two years, there's been a spate of cases where employees have been fired over a Facebook comment. Most often such comments have been derogatory towards the employee's boss, colleagues or the firm.
In ensuing legal and industrial disputes, there has been a mixture of results. Some decisions have favoured the employee (e.g. reinstatement or settlements), others have favoured the employer and the dismissal has been upheld.
A recent case involved Dawnmarie Soouza a paramedic from Connecticut, who posted a comment on Facebook in which she likened her supervisor to a psychiatric patient. As a result, she found herself terminated.
Soouza sued her employer, American Medical Response, and the case was settled out of court. As part of the settlement, AMR agreed to revise its policies so they do not "improperly restrict" employees from discussing their employment outside of work.
The key point according to a law professor interviewed on CBS News, is that this "really has expanded the free speech rights of American workers . . . If they are communicating about the workplace, and they're talking about their supervisors, then it's a protected activity."
Apparently, there's even a term coined to describe such postings. It's called "Facestabbing - the art of applying a slam, inflicting an insult or gossiping on Facebook. The comment is done in such a way that the reader may not even know they, or someone they know, is being Facestabbed" (The Urban Dictionary).
To counter such issues from arising, it's been suggested that prudent employers will want to introduce workplace policies in relation to posting online, either at work or otherwise any derogatory comments about the company, co-workers or customers; personal information about co-workers without their written consent; or confidential information belonging to the business.
Perhaps such policies should even go so far as to restrict employees from making disparaging comments online about any third parties during work hours or work-related social networking.
But is that the real answer?
Yes, firms can go down the legal route and get their policies straight to perhaps counter the "protected activity". In fact, in the Soouza case, her employer had such policies. However, the National Labor Relations Board, in this case was able to show that the employer's policies in regard to blogging and online comments were too broad.
I'm sure there are legal firms out there who are already putting in place "experts" in Blogging, Facebook and Facestabbing. No doubt, there will be plenty of work in this growing employer/employee online relationship dispute business sector.
And undoubtedly all firms should have such good policies in place.
So, are having the appropriate policies real answers to this online phenomenon?
Thinking managers will realize that Facestabbing is little different to the old "water cooler gossiping" or "heard it at the pub" that have been part and parcel of work life forever. The major differences now, are that it is in writing, instantly accessible and spreads faster than wildfire.
Such comments invariably stem from a lack of respect, trust and confidence in the employer. And that comes down to poor management and leadership.
It's interesting to note that in countries where there have been recent Facebook employer/employee disputes (i.e. US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – to name a few), not one has involved a "Top 100 Companies to Work For".
One could say this is pure coincidence or that there are too few cases at the moment to discriminate. On the other hand, perhaps these employers are doing something right – something that gives their employees things to talk about other than their boss, colleagues or the firm?
If one looks at the credo, values or HR strategies of the top companies to work for, there is one common theme – recognizing people for their worth as people, not as a necessary financial expense on the balance sheet.
In a new book "Winning with a Culture of Recognition", authors Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine have taken recognition beyond the normal (and often failed) process of "Recognition Awards", to making recognition a strategic business imperative.
Other noted authors have often made the point that recognition needs to be given locally and not as part of a company-wide awards program – merely given simply and appropriately by the manager for a job well done.
Mosley and Irvine agree. However, they've been able to take recognition up another level and provide a business case that shows how strategic recognition "gives the CEO new insights into the behavioral norms and the culture driving the company. Appreciation will have a positive and measurable effect on productivity".
Does your employer have a recognition strategy?
If an investor asks, "What is your compensation strategy?" or "Explain your benefits plan" or "What's your strategic plan?" then most firms would have a ready answer. Mosley and Irvine suggest that very few would be able to answer in the affirmative for "Do you have a recognition strategy?"
If you're looking to ensure that your name or the firm's name does not appear unfavorably on someone's Facebook wall, then perhaps it's time to think more strategically about how to build a culture of recognition within your company.