How Safe is it to Complain About Your Boss on Facebook or Twitter?

You can still get fired for sounding off about work on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But if you're trying to improve working conditions, and not just venting, regulators may protect you.

Suppose you think your boss is an a***ole? Is it OK to tweet that? Only if you want to get fired. But suppose you start a Facebook page that you and co-workers use to discuss your poor working conditions? Well that could get you fired too, but a series of recent regulatory rulings is making it safer to sound off.

The National Labor Relations Board has started taking notice of employers' restrictions on the use of social media to discuss the workplace, and is increasingly siding with workers who have something to say about the job. In a must-read article for anyone who uses social media at work, Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times writes that the NLRB says "workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook."

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The rise of social media has changed the boundaries between public and private behavior -- and that’s true in schools, in dating and at the office. Almost no one really knows what's permissible these days, so it’s very encouraging that federal regulators, a group often disparaged as "bureaucrats," are taking a thoughtful look at the issue.

"Many view social media as the new water cooler," said NLRB chairman Mark G. Pearce, noting that federal law has long protected the right of employees to discuss work-related matters. "All we're doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology."

It’s important to understand a distinction that regulators are making. It’s one thing to simply rant about your boss, your co-workers or your customers. It's quite another to complain about working conditions, particularly if you’re trying to change them through organizing a union or by the informal actions of a group of employees.

A disgruntled Illinois bartender was fired after a post on Facebook in which he called his customers "rednecks," and wrote that he hopes they die in car wrecks as they drive home drunk. His case went to the NLRB but he stayed fired. Labor board officials found that his comments were personal venting, not the "concerted activity" aimed at improving wages and working conditions that is protected by federal law, the Times reported.

But in another case, the agency ordered the reinstatement of workers at a non-profit social services agency in Buffalo, New York, who were fired for using Facebook to defend themselves from accusations that they were lazy. In a 3-to-1 decision last month, the labor board concluded that the caseworkers had been unlawfully terminated. It found that the posts from 2010 were the type of "concerted activity" for "mutual aid" that is expressly protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

It's a fine line, to be sure. And it's worth remembering that getting your job back via the NLRB can take years and a good deal of expense. So you still want to be very careful about what you Tweet or post if its directly related to your job.

But it is clear that companies will no longer be able to simply prohibit workers from using social media to comment on working conditions.

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