Add Canada to the list of places where Facebook can be hazardous to your employment status.
Two workers at a B.C. car dealership were sacked for what they wrote about their employer and their managers on Facebook. And the B.C. Labour Relations Board has upheld their dismissal.
The incident, which occurred in Pitt Meadows just west of Vancouver, is believed to be the first such case in Canada.
“It's the first Facebook case that has made it to hearing at least,” said Donald Richards, the lawyer who handled it for the employer, but he added there are likely plenty more to come.
“I think they're in the hopper now.”
In this case, the two employees left few defamatory stones unturned. One or the other slagged their employer, accusing the business of being crooked, accused managers of performing homosexual acts together and mused about committing acts of violence against them.
“I think I was fortunate in the sense that I had pretty extreme facts,” said Richards.
In addition, some of the posts were made from computers at the business and one of the managers in question was a Facebook “friend” of the two, at least for part of the time in question.
The B.C. case was complicated by the fact that the workplace had just been unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of the employees in question was an organizer in that drive and the other a union supporter. The union claimed that was behind the employer's actions.
In her report, B.C. board vice-chair Allison Matacheskie said she did find the timing of the decision to start keeping a file on the employees' Facebook facings “puzzling or suspicious.” But she still found the employer justified in sacking the two for what they did and didn't buy suggestions others may have hacked into their pages.
The fact that all this happened on Facebook, and not in person on the workplace floor, doesn't change things, suggest the experts.
“It's too easy for people to say anything goes here,” said Randall Craig, a consultant and author of the recently released “Social Media for Business.”
“Facebook just does what it's supposed to do. It broadcasts what you're thinking to your network. In this case, there's hundreds and hundreds of people. It's not just a case of a bunch of guys sitting at a table in a bar.”
But lines are still being drawn in this shifting social media sand and another case in the United States has people like Richards and Craig watching closely.
The National Labor Relations Board there is siding with a worker and is taking on her employer, American Medical Response of Connecticut Inc.
The board says Dawnmarie Souza was illegally fired from her job as an emergency medical technician after she criticized her supervisor on her personal Facebook page and traded messages about it with other employees.
“It's the same as talking at the water cooler,” Lafe Solomon, the board's acting general counsel, told The Associated Press. “The point is that employees have protection under the law to talk to each other about conditions at work.”
Like the B.C. case, this one is a first for the American federal labour regulatory agency. And American and Canadian laws are very similar, although the facts in the two cases are quite different.
In the U.S. case, Souza was on her own time, on her own computer, and although she used a term that sarcastically implied her supervisor was a psychiatric patient, she stopped well short of the kind of remarks made in the B.C. case.
“As soon as you start to get into the area of libellous or slanderous discussion, it's reasonable for a company or for another person to say ‘Well, no, what you've said is not acceptable,“’ said Craig.
“Free speech goes a long way, but I don't think it gives you impunity to say anything about anyone, even if you're not at work,” added Richards.
But the relative newness of social networking means there are still plenty of grey areas that just aren't clear, for workers or employers.
“The social contract isn't set yet,” said Craig.
He said employers should be developing policies around social media use just as they have policies concerning Internet or e-mail at work.
“If there aren't ground rules in the workplace ... it's not surprising that the workers who get this brand-new toy might not recognize what the risks are.”
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