“Wassup y’all? At work serving these rude ass white people.” Earlier this summer, these two sentences were posted by a young concession stand employee, to her Facebook page. In addition to these two sentences, she tagged her employer, Brookfield Zoo (Brookfield, Illinois), and in the picture she was wearing her employee uniform. This was a teen girl who wasn’t enjoying her job that day, and decided to vent. In response to her vent, the internet roared.
Brookfield Zoo reported getting countless phone calls and online messages, demanding that she be fired. Members threatened to cancel their memberships, trips and parties if swift action wasn’t taken. The two-fold complaints were valid – the post was seeped in racial overtones, and this girl was openly insulting her employer’s customers. The next day it was confirmed that the young woman did indeed lose her job. In follow-up interviews, the former employee acknowledged that she was very sorry and had learned a lesson. I believe her, and I believe she’s fully capable of moving on from this and doing great things in her education and career.
Every time I read a story about an offensive Facebook post (or actually read one posted by someone I know), I’m thankful that Facebook didn’t exist when I was a teen. Surviving high school, my first job, my first boyfriend, my first break-up and all the other things teens juggle was difficult enough without an audience of thousands. It’s easy for us Gen-X and Baby Boomers to have a ‘clutching the pearls’ moment when we read these misguided vents. In this case, it cost this young lady her job. Is that fair? Yes, absolutely. Posting negative things about your work is not smart, but tagging the employer’s name in the post and adding a picture wearing the uniform makes termination an easy call for any manager to make. Is it legal? That’s where the issue becomes a little less clear, although I’m confident Brookfield Zoo acted fully within their rights. Full disclosure – I’m a Resume Writer, not an Attorney. I see issues like these from the career advancement…or career regression angle, but not from a legal angle. Therefore, I reached out to Attorney Nina B. Ries of Ries Law Group in Los Angeles, who quickly pointed out that “employers should keep in mind that some states prohibit employers from poking around their employees’ social media profiles, including Facebook. California’s social media law took effect on January 1, 2013, and Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware have similar laws. Even states without social media laws are limited in what they can do.” The National Labor Relations Board has more information about this on their website, www.nlrb.gov. Keep in mind that if your employer sees you complaining about work on Facebook, but the law prevents her from using that against you, that employer could find other, legitimate reasons for disciplining or firing you. These laws can only do so much to defend you against a boss who would rather have a happy, non-complaining employee.
I wondered what employers think about their employees’ Facebook pages. I reached out to various business owners in my network and learned that we all feel about the same – do what you want on social media as long as you don’t create a problem for the business, and that you don’t waste company time. But some of them, such as this high-end event planner, take a proactive approach: “I have my employees sign a social media clause in my employment package. If they decide to disclose that they are an employee for my company, they are not allowed to post comments or negative interactions with clients…if something is brought to our attention, like negativity about a different employee or direct comments that may be considered harmful to the well-being of our business, it may be grounds for dismissal…Haven’t had an issue yet.”
A manager at a Human Resources Consulting company tells me that just like Brookfield Zoo, they also have terminated employees for negative social media posts. “Employees should be aware that employers watch for the company to be ‘trending’ online and will see all company-related posts. We’ve let people go for talking negatively about their position or company while on the clock.”
Facebook posts that discuss things such as underage partying can mean losing out on career-boosting offers. An owner of a computer forensics firm offered the following example: “we had an intern that had publicly posted references to partying, including ‘420’. That intern, although very bright and with much potential, was not provided further opportunities to move forward with our firm.” (That’s the nice, corporate-speak way of saying that he was shown the door quickly, and told never to come back.) Think about how much time, energy and money was spent by this intern and his parents towards his career development, and how one unwise post took away a dream opportunity.
I also asked employers about consistency in disciplinary actions. (This is where the responses to my questions started to get interesting.) Of the employees who get fired for negative Facebook posts, most of them are younger, entry-level. This demographic is usually easy to replace. But what if a Manager or even C-level employee posted the same thing? Would the consequences be the same? Some pointed out that people don’t make it to the higher levels if they have a tendency to bad-mouth the company or clients. If that happened, it would probably be a first offense. Overwhelmingly, employers told me that the higher the position, it would be looked at on a case-by-case basis. But I found that no one is completely insulated. A quick google search of “fired for Facebook comments” turned up plenty of professional, management and executive-level people who lost a great job with just a few misguided sentences.
So what can be learned from this? First of all, don’t post your unhappy work thoughts on Facebook. If the public sees it, they will probably react…LOUDLY. Secondly, disciplinary action is not always doled out equally. Before you hit ‘enter’, stop and ask yourself if your comment is really worth public backlash, making your boss angry, or even losing your job. No matter what your position is on the totem pole, once in a while you’re going to be unhappy at work. When that happens, don’t go for Facebook. Go for a walk, instead…especially if you work at a zoo!