The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) oversees federal law regarding unfair discipline and termination of employees. Recently, the NLRB has addressed several cases involving employees' Internet activity. Can employers punish or fire workers for posting information online? The answer depends a great deal on the discussions contained in the posts. Employers, of course, can completely regulate how you use the Internet on company property. This article deals with your use of the Internet on your own time.
Your Privacy Is Under Your Control
When it comes to the Internet, privacy is your right, but you have to exercise that right. The Internet is largely public, so your right to private posts depends on you and the privacy controls you set. It's like the difference between whispering a secret and shouting the information from the town square. Shouts from the town square are usually considered public knowledge.
Personal Activities Can Be Held Against You
If you haven't taken steps to keep your online activity private, and your employer accesses it, you can generally be fired (or not hired in the first place) for what you say and any photos you share. Virtually all states have at-will employment laws. "At-will" means that your boss can terminate your employment at any time for any reason that doesn't involve discrimination against a legally protected class. Laws against discrimination do not protect you from being fired for your personal choices. Therefore, your boss can terminate your employment because of your lifestyle or your opinions, if you make them common knowledge by posting them on the Internet.
Comments About Your Employer
If your online postings directly relate to your company, your employer can usually discipline you or fire you because of them. If you vent about or make fun of your co-workers or your supervisor, your employer has the right to take action against you. If you say your boss is an idiot, your boss usually has every right to fire you. But some exceptions exist.
The Right to Organize Your Workforce
The only online discussions protected by the NLRB are those relating to your work conditions or policies, and they must include comments from co-workers to qualify. The NLRB calls this "concerted activity." It involves organizing co-workers to make your workplace better, such as by forming a union, and your right to do this is constitutionally protected. These online conversations must clearly be an effort to improve unfair business practices aimed at employees. If you just vent and complain in your posts, they probably won't qualify.
An Employment Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding employees' use of the Internet on their own time is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a labor or employment lawyer.