Ambulance company settles over Facebook firing

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Employers need to think very carefully before firing staff over Facebook use, following the decision of a Connecticut ambulance company to settle a wrongful dismissal case rather than continue to fight.

Dawnmarie Souza posted negative comments on Facebook about her supervisor, and was fired, but had her case taken up by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

It claimed that, along with denying Souza legal representation, American Medical Response (AMR) had been enforcing an overly-strict blogging and social media policy. After all, it's perfectly legal for employees to criticize their boss when talking face to face.

Under the terms of the settlement, the company has now agreed to revise its rules so that they don't prohibit employees from discussing their wages, hours and working conditions with co-workers and others while not at work, and says it won't discipline or fire employees for engaging in such discussions.

AMR also promised that employee requests for union representation will not be denied in future, and that employees will not be threatened with discipline for requesting union representation. Further terms weren't revealed.

Employment law expert Regina Robson, an assistant professor of management at saint Joseph's University, says the decision shows that social media is no different than print or oral communications when it comes to employee issues. "The same rules for libel, slander, or invasion of privacy apply," she says.

What's particularly interesting, she says, is that the NLRB positioned the incident as involving concerted activity – defined as communication among employees seeking to improve work conditions. This is protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

"To qualify as concerted activity, the employee must prove that the communications were to other employees and related to working conditions," says Robson.

"For example, the NLRB wouldn’t protect a statement that only involved an ‘insulting, obscene or personal attack on a supervisor without any connection to larger working conditions."

She warns that employees should be careful when bitching about the boss: "Personal attacks are far more likely to lead to termination than discussions of wages and working conditions," she says.