The National Labor Relations Board, through a series of new rules governing small business and social media, has provided greater protections for employees who speak out against employers online. Expanding existing rules, the NLRB said, "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." Essentially, it means your boss can't hand you a pink slip for smack-talking the company on Twitter.
A series of cases brought before the board in recent months has illuminated the problem of employer standards when it comes to social media and the Internet, and the combined impact of the NLRB rulings is to limit employers' ability to fire or discipline an employee for making what the company considers damaging comments about it online.
And while this rule does offer protection for people bitching about their company around the virtual water cooler just as previous rules protected them around the actual water cooler, this is still a pretty broad ruling and leaves the details to individual cases as to what is okay and what is too much. In fact, the NLRB ruled in favor of the Arizona Daily Star in a case involving a reporter who was fired for tweeting "What?!?!?! No overnight homicide...You're slacking, Tucson" and "You stay homicidal, Tucson."
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No doubt threats of violence or revealing corporate secrets online will not be afforded much if any protection against termination, as they probably should not be. On the other hand, saying your boss is a jackass probably won't get you fired. Probably.
One area where I will sympathize, if only slightly, with employers is the fact that online postings reach a much wider audience and can be much more permanent than idle office gossip. Sitting in the lunch room with your coworkers talking about the asshole in HR is a much different issue from saying it on Twitter to your 500 followers. Additionally, what is said can have a substantial impact. Calling someone a jerk and accusing the same person of being a drunk have completely different ramifications and pack a much greater wallop when posted online.
Still, it is at least somewhat comforting to know that if you are critical of the company you work for, particularly if it is a big company and the complaints could potentially benefit everyone, the bosses can't go head-hunting without consequences. And in truth, this is a sensible rule that helps to expand earlier rules to fit modern technological circumstances.
But I'd hold off on the profanity-laced Tumblr post or dropping Photoshopped pictures of your boss with an Adolf Hitler 'stache on Instagram. The company might not be able to fire you, but my guess is there are still plenty of ways for them to make your life a living hell.