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NLRB Shows Some Restraint in its Protection of Employee Social Media Communications: Employee Termination Arising From “Egregious” and “Insubordinate” Facebook Posts Was Legal Under the NLRA

Written by Erin C. Horton

In the wake of the NLRB’s aggressive crackdown on social media policies, many employers have asked: “Is there any limit to what employees can post on social media about their employers?”  It appears that there is.  Just last week, a former employee of the Richmond District Neighborhood Teen Center in San Francisco learned this the hard way when the Board dismissed his complaint that the Center violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act after it pulled a rehire offer after it discovered that he participated in an inappropriate Facebook exchange.

During the 2011-2012 school year, Ian Callaghan and Kenya Moore both worked for the Center’s afterschool program—Callaghan as a teen activity leader and Moore as the teen center program leader.  In May 2012, the Center held a staff meeting during which it solicited and received both positive and negative feedback from its staff, including Callaghan and Moore.  In July 2012, Callaghan and Moore received letters inviting them to return to the Center for the 2012-2013 school year; this time both as activity leaders.

The following month, Callaghan and Moore communicated over Facebook about (i) refusing to obtain permission before organizing youth activities (“ordering sh*t, having crazy events at the Beacon all the time.  I don’t want to ask permission…”; “Let’s do some cool sh*t and let them figure out the money”; “field trips all the time to wherever the f#@! we want!”), (ii) disregarding specific school district rules (“play music loud”; “teach the kids how to graffiti up the walls…”), (iii) undermining leadership (“we’ll take advantage”), (iv) neglecting their duties (“I ain’t go[]never be there”), and (v) jeopardizing the safety of participating youth and the program overall (“they start loosn kids I aint helpin”; “Let’s f#@! it up”).  When the Center’s administration became aware of the postings, it revoked the offers to rehire, and Callaghan filed a charge with the Board.

Under Section 7 of the Act, employees have the right to engage in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection, including complaining to one another about the terms and conditions of their employment.  In that vein, an employer may not take adverse action against employees for exercising their Section 7 rights without violating Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.  That said, employees can take it too far and lose the protection of Section 7 when their conduct is particularly egregious or of such a character as to render the employees unfit for further service.

Here, although Callaghan and Moore previously had engaged in protected activity during the May 2012 staff meeting when they offered negative feedback about the Center, and although neither Callaghan nor Moore had ever engaged in any acts of insubordination, the Board held that they lost the Act’s protection because “[t]he magnitude and detail of insubordinate acts advocated in the [Facebook] posts reasonably gave [the Center] concern that Callaghan and Moore would act on their plans, a risk a reasonable employer would refuse to take.”

Several years ago, the Richmond District Neighborhood Center decision may have been a foregone conclusion.  But in light of the current Board’s aggressive approach to Section 7 protections, the decision provides employers with reassurance that Section 7 has retained at least some outer bounds.  The decision provides some guidance for defining “insubordination” in social media policies, for example, to include communications pervaded by detailed plans to jeopardize the employer’s very existence, violate legally enforceable employer policies, or neglect job duties.

For a full discussion of the Board’s recent approach to social media policies, see George Patterson’s September 3, 2014 posting “NLRB Continues Aggressive Crackdown on Social Media Polices.”

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