Beware of firing employees for negative Facebook comments

With social networks, we’re all instant publishers of information. If you say something about your employer over Facebook or Twitter, you should be prepared to own up to the consequences.

But companies would be rash to start punishing employees for every bit of unflattering information they post to the Web.

This ongoing philosophical question about how to address employee behavior and information-sharing on social networks resurfaced last week.

Media reports described how a part-time employee for the Philadelphia Eagles named Dan Leone found himself out of a job after he lamented the team’s failure to sign seven-time Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins, who opted to play for the Denver Broncos.

On his Facebook status message, Leone said: “Dan is [expletive] devastated about Dawkins signing with Denver. . .Dam Eagles R Retarted!!”

He quickly realized the possible consequences of the post and deleted it, but as this Philadelphia Inquirer column detailed, it was too late.

Other poor publishing decisions on social networks have been widely circulated.

An executive from a PR agency (ironic profession considering this example) serving FedEx caught sharp criticism after he let his feelings known about the shipping company’s hometown of Memphis.

He posted the following to his Twitter account, “True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here!'”

Both incidents reveal that companies need to have more realistic expectations about the freedom their employees have (and should have) to publish their thoughts on social networks.

Both employees in this case could have leveled the same criticisms with more mild diction (maybe “I don’t think the Eagles got this right” instead of “retarded”; or “this city isn’t really for me” instead of “I would die.”)

The early concerns about social networks revolved around the hiring process rather than employees, since many organizations made the knee-jerk decision to ban social networks at first.

With great regularity, we’ve seen examples of HR departments trolling social networks to vet (or eliminate) candidates from the hiring competition.

My colleague, Meridith Levinson, wrote a great post about how this practice is markedly unfair and unrealistic.

On this issue, I’d strike a similiar tone.

It’s reasonable to assume that employees should never leak proprietary information via social networks, or take personal shots at their colleagues.

Yet broadly criticizing their own organization shouldn’t automatically lead a firing, suspension or any disciplinary action for that matter.

For organizations to tell employees they can only publish favourable content about their company on social networks sets several poor precedents.

For one, it makes your company look wildly insecure and paranoid about its own business decisions.

It also appears as if you don’t value dissension or debate on critical issues, that you enforce a “our way or the highway” mentality throughout the office.

Lastly, it shows a gross misunderstanding of the paradigm shift social technologies enable in the open marketplace of ideas. With social networks, normal people don’t need millions of dollars to get their opinion heard, or go through the cumbersome process of writing to a newspaper.

They can publish information for free and in the comfort of their own homes.

This scares many companies.

Some organizations, especially the ones that grew up before the Web, would prefer all their employees defer to the jargon ridden PR boilerplate before making any public statement about the company.
touting of the company line is an untenable model in today’s world.

Transparency (with good, bad and ugly information) ultimately betters your organization and keeps it honest.

Social technologies enable that transparency, and punishing employees for passionately engaging in conversations about where they work is a backwards way of thinking.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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