Ragan.com recently asked this question: “When should you fire an employee for his tweets?”
As a management-side employment lawyer you’d think I’d tell you that private-sector employees have no privacy rights in what they post online, and that an employer has the right to fire any employee, at any time, for anything posted on a social network (with a big caveat under the National Labor Relations Act). More or less, that statement is legally correct.
But just because something is legally correct doesn’t make it practically prudent. Firing an employee for what they say online ignores the risk of harm to a business if the firing goes viral.
Case in point? Consider last week’s dust-up between Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel. In case you’re not up on the latest gossip, Kanye gave the BBC a very (even for Kanye’s standards) self-aggrandizing interview, which Jimmy Kimmel mocked by having a little kid reenact the interview on his late-night talk show. Had it stopped there, the story would have likely died. But, Kanye took the story to his nearly 10 million Twitter followers, trashing Jimmy Kimmel in a series of progressively offensive tweets, which led to Kimmel devoting an entire monologue to eviscerating Kanye. (By the way, Kanye, 1) you’re not going to win a battle of wits with a stand-up comic, and 2) deleting all of your tweets does not erase them from every news outlet that’s already posted screen caps.)
The lesson here? Social media has the ability to turn a forgotten event into a viral nightmare. Certainly there are instances when you will have no choice but to fire someone for something posted online—for example, racist, sexist, or other inappropriate conduct, or breaches of confidentiality.
Take a look at Twitter, however, and realize how fast a tweet can disappear from a stream. Now, consider your employee, who likely has 5 or 10 followers, or even a few hundred Facebook friends. Given this limited reach, how likely is it that something an employee posts will hurt your business? If the answer is not-very-likely, then give serious consideration to ignoring it. Instead of firing an employee over some marginally inappropriate or improper post, consider providing all of your employees some training on responsible posting and other online activities. Turn a potentially viral and destructive situation into a positive learning experience.
Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Jon on Twitter @jonhyman.