Once upon a time, your business reputation resulted mainly from your own actions and words—and those of your customers. But that’s an old story. Today, a financial advisor’s reputation also hinges on the behavior of employees (if any). And when their words or deeds are insulting, harassing, or demeaning—and begin to replicate virally on social media—watch out!
Employee rants have become common on the Internet. According to Nolo, a legal website for consumers and small businesses, employees are acting out on Facebook, G+, and other social-networking sites. Consider these high-profile examples:
- An employee of a restaurant chain puts cheese up his nose and then places it on pizza being cooked for a customer, all captured on a YouTube video.
- Another restaurant shift supervisor is captured on video saying, “I literally hate customers more than anything in the entire world . . . . They’re terrible. It’s all about them all the time.”
- An employee of an auto club posts comments online about coworkers’ weight and sexual orientation, along with plans to slow down the company’s roadside assistance program.
- Another employee threatens to punch a colleague in the face “before the end of my shift.”
- A bored crime-beat newspaper reporter tweets, “What?!?!?! No overnight homicides? You’re slacking, Tucson.”
- And a bartender unhappy about not getting a raise in five years posts about his “redneck” customers, wishing they choked on glass as they drive home drunk.
Would you reprimand or fire an employee for acting in this way? No doubt. And you might expect the law to back you up, especially if your agency or practice has a written social-media policy. Think again!
Over the last several years, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued several rulings that clarify employee freedom of speech online. Essentially what they’ve done is apply Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to online social media. Under that section, employees for decades have had the right to organize, join, or assist labor unions. They also have the right to engage in what NLRB calls “protected concerted activity”—i.e., discussions between employees designed to enhance working conditions or pay.
What’s different now is that online “concerted activity” is protected, as well as offline activity. And employees don’t have to be union members to receive such protection.
Under this reading of the NLRA, employers may not fire someone for making negative, insulting, or even disparaging remarks if they occurred between multiple employees engaged in concerted activity. But if the person’s rants have nothing to do with pay or working conditions and/or do not involve other employees, then the employer can discipline the person legally.