Defending The Digital Workplace

An ebusinesscounsel.com publication

Posts Tagged ‘employee investigations

Facebook Firing Ends in Settlement with NLRB

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it had reached a settlement in a case involving an employee’s discharge for posting negative comments about a supervisor on the employee’s Facebook page. Click here for the NLRB’s press release.

In sum, however, the NLRB had issued a complaint against American Medical Response of Connecticut, Inc., on October 27, 2010,  alleging that the discharge violated federal labor law  (the National Labor Relations Act or “NLRA”) because the employee was engaged in “protected activity” when she posted the comments about her supervisor, and responded to further comments from her co-workers.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees  have a federally protected right to form unions, and it prohibits employers from punishing workers — whether union or non-union — for discussing working conditions or unionization.

The NLRB complaint also alleged that the company maintained overly broad rules in its employee handbook regarding blogging, Internet posting, and communications between employees. This policy prohibited employees from making disparaging remarks about the company or depicting it online without permission. Further, the NLRB alleged that AMR (the employer) had illegally denied union representation to the employee during an investigatory interview shortly before the employee posted the negative comments on her Facebook page.

Under the terms of the approved settlement, the company agreed to revise its social media policy to ensure that the rules do not improperly restrict employees from discussing their wages, hours and working conditions with co-workers and others while not at work, and that they would not discipline or discharge employees for engaging in such discussions. The allegations involving the employee’s discharge were resolved through a separate, private agreement between the employee and the company.

The Take Away for Employers

This had been the first case in which the NLRB sought to argue that workers’ criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site was a protected activity under the NLRA and that employers would be violating the NLRA by punishing workers for making statements in the context of social media. Accordingly, employers likely would have welcomed guidance from the NLRB as to how the 75-year-old NLRA would be reconciled with the technological realities of how employees communicate in the age of social media.

For example, the employee involved in the NLRB’s complaint, Dawnmarie Souza, at one point mocked her supervisor on Facebook, using several vulgarities to ridicule him. This eventually drew supportive responses from her co-workers that led to further negative comments about the supervisor. Where a Facebook conversation involves several co-workers it is more likely to be viewed as “concerted protected activity.” But what if instead, Ms. Souza had simply lashed out in a negative post against a supervisor and no co-workers joined in the discussion (not even a single “like” in Facebook terminology). Would that type of comment in the absence of “co-worker discussion” still be considered protected?

In any event, from a strategic perspective, employers should appreciate that this issue will be resolved another day, perhaps under a less “labor friendly” NLRB.

The clear take-away, however, is that the NLRB’s original complaint and this settlement signals that the NLRB intends to protect employees’ rights to discuss the conditions of their employment with co-workers irrespective of whether this discussion takes place at the water cooler or on Facebook.

Accordingly, it is critical for employers – regardless of whether your workforce is unionized or not – to review your Internet and social media policies to determine whether they would be subject to a similar attack by the NLRB that the policy ‘reasonably tends to chill employees’ ” in the exercise of their rights under the NLRA to discuss wages, working conditions and unionization. Areas to consider include:

  • Does the social media policy expressly restrict protected activity;
  • Would an employee construe the social media policy as prohibiting protected activity;
  • Has the social media policy been used to discipline employees who engaged in protected activity; and
  • Was the policy put into place in in response to concerted or protected activity.

None of  this should be taken as legal advice, but it is good advice. And we would welcome the opportunity to offer our insight as to what policies should and should not say and strategies for managing the unique risks found at the intersection of social media and employment and labor law.

Cybercrime – FBI Reports Increase in Complaints & Losses for 2009.

As if your organization didn’t have enough to worry about – the FBI reported that cyber-crime is on the rise (click here for a post at InsideCounsel). The full report is available here.

Among the cyber-crime victims coming forward is a law firm that filed suit against the Chinese government (Click here for the full story from Wired’s Threat Level). In fact, the Wired article notes that “If you’re a law firm and you’re doing business in places like China, it’s so probable you’re compromised and it’s very probable there’s not much you can do about it.” The types of threats that such law firms and other companies face are called Advanced Persistent Threats (APT). An APT attack is distinctive in that they are rarely detected by antivirus and intrusion programs. Further, these attacks are espionage focused. In other words, APT hackers attempt to take business intelligence, e.g., files, e-mails, etc., rather than financial or customer data, which serves as a precursor for identity theft. For an in depth, yet very readable discussion about APT attacks, click here (also a Dark Reading post).

Equally dangerous as APT hackers or other cyber-criminals is the current or former rogue employee. For example, a federal grand jury recently indicted a former employee of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for trying to corrupt a database of terrorism suspects in an inside job that many within the information security industry say is a stark reminder of how important it is to track insider access to sensitive data stores. (click here for the full story originally posted at Dark Reading. ).

The preceding FBI report and stories illustrate that business organizations should assume that an attempt will be made to compromise their IT infrastructure.  I’ve talked with various IT security professionals about what are the appropriate steps to prevent APT or other cyber-attacks. Unfortunately, the general and unsatisfying response has been to the effect of if someone wants in bad enough and has the resources, they will get into your network. The sophistication and resources of some of the high-profile of cyber-victims (Google, Marathon Oil, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips, to name a few), would seem to confirm this conclusion.

And many remedies available to business organizations are only available after the fact (Click here for prior post discussing theft of business assets and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act). But when it comes to discharging employees, low-tech and common sense go a long way in preventing near disasters like that allegedly committed by the former TSA employee: Make sure your termination process first removes all access to sensitive information, databases,  e-mail, etc., and then terminate the individual  – not the other way around. Such steps are especially important when the employee has administrative rights to the IT infrastructure.

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