Back when Luddites were in charge, employees were stuck with whispering bad stuff about the boss while standing in line at the water cooler. But in today’s high tech, low behavior, online world water coolers are taboo, shouting is all the rage, and employees no longer avert their eyes when the boss strolls by their cubicle. All they do is lower their devices, grin, and then yelp the old fool. 

                The widespread nature of social media has made employees online conduct a factor in their employment status. The question of the ethics of firing or punishing employees for their online posts is complicated. They have their freedom of expression, their grievances, their taunts, and they can thumb the old fool all they want, clandestinely and with the smugness that comes with thumbing him instead of flipping him off with an old-fashioned middle finger salute.  

                The company line is usually drawn when an employee’s online behavior is considered to be disloyal to their employer. The test is not truth, it’s whether the post is punishable because it costs the company money. Yes, employees have first amendment rights. And yes, they can get fired; that’s a penalty. But what if the rant is not merely a rant. What if it’s a legitimate, good faith expression raising awareness of a hostile workplace environment online.

                As is the case for much of what happens online, the terms of employment about conduct may draw uncomfortable lines for online whistle blowers. The ethical standard is clear social media policies. Clarity and transparency is both the hammer and the nail in implementing clear social media policies—they must stipulate which online behaviors constitute an infringement.   

                Take Yelp for example. It’s Content Guidelines admit they know people don’t always agree on things. But, they say, “We expect everyone on the site to treat one another and the platform with honesty and respect. We’ve put together general guidelines to help set the tone for discourse on the site—just in case. Please also read the additional guidelines below for specific types of content that you might contribute to the site.”[1]

                Their site is “no place for rants about political ideologies, employment practices, extraordinary circumstances, threats, harassment, lewdness, hate speech, or other displays of bigotry. Then insist on unbiased and objective commentary. They advise against reviews of employers, friends, peers, competitors, or customers. They won’t accept people’s private information and warn against swiping content from other sites, users, or businesses.”[2]

                In 2015, Yelp faced an ethics crisis when users learned that the company accepted money from companies in exchange for “scrubbing” or removing bad reviews from their profile. Although the practice was legal, public trust was violated and many users deleted their accounts and publicly criticized the site.[3]

                “Ethical Legalism” is Yelp’s protocol for its posting policy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that Yelp can change the ratings of businesses on its site as it sees fit. It had been accused of lowering the ratings of companies that did not purchase advertising on its site. The court issued a unanimous decision in Yelp’s favor.[4]

                Ranting about a boss online is endemic. “About a quarter of employers surveyed by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics in 2009 had disciplined an employee for improper activities on social networking sites. But only 10 percent of companies had specific polices to deal with social networking sites, the survey reported. Employees for decades have engaged in inappropriate behavior and communication. Ten years ago, it was an inappropriate e-mail. Now it’s an inappropriate message on Facebook.”[5]

                Most American states are “at-will” employment states. Consequently, employers can terminate an employee for any reason except for federally protected classes such as race, gender, and religion. The ethical advice is if you want to keep your job, keep your online posts positive. The best test is don’t say anything online about your boss you wouldn’t say in an e-mail.






Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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