Laraine Cook was a substitute teacher and girls’ basketball coach in the Pocatello School District in Idaho. Over the summer break, she and her boyfriend attended a family reunion. Cook posted pictures of the event on Facebook, including a picture that stirred a controversy that led to Cook’s dismissal. The picture showed Cook and her boyfriend, Tom Harrison, posing on a beach in swimsuits. Cook’s hand is on Harrison’s waist, and Harrison appears to be palming Cook’s breast.
Within 48 hours, the athletic director of the school both Harrison and Cook worked at contacted Harrison and advised that the photo be taken down. Cook’s family reunion album was public, and beyond that, she had friended some of her students on Facebook.
Cook took the photo down, but when the academic year started up the next fall, she was promptly fired for “posting a photo of a sexual nature on a social media site.” Harrison, a full-time teacher, was given a reprimand for having appeared in the photo. Cook filed a grievance with the school board and was reinstated this December.
The case itself is typical of a clash that has become common in the last few years. Social media can blur the line between our public and private lives. Employers are increasingly looking to information posted online on hiring, and to keep tabs on employees. Established businesses run into their employees’ behaviour on social media that casts them in a negative light, but lacking a solid social media policy, or clear precedents, may be seen as overreacting.
Here we see the school board resorting to contract language meant to control ‘immoral and obscene behaviour’ for something that some see as simply as a suggestive swimsuit photo that was posted as part of a family reunion photo album. It was arguably not enough in the end to justify a dismissal, but for some stepped outside what is acceptable.
Questions like ‘how much control should an employee be expected to have over photos they don’t post’ or ‘what level of sharing is appropriate for an employee?’ are basic questions that a social media policy answers and what we should personally be considering.
When events like this happen, they help steer the conversation towards productive directions like ‘what level of sharing with students (or clients) is appropriate’ instead of having the conversation default to ‘you are acting obscenely in public and ruining the good name of our organization!’
Or it might be as simple as getting your employees to think twice before you post.