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Daily Download: Can Facebook Posts Get You Fired?

January 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
NewsHour's political editor Christina Bellantoni talks with the Daily Download's Howard Kurtz and Lauren Ashburn about how the digital world affects and infects the culture we live in. They talk about what one should and shouldn't publish on social media about a job, and whether your Facebook status could get you fired.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we begin a series of conversations on how the digital world affects, and infects, the culture we live in.

Back with us is our Daily Download team who spent last year examining how the political campaign played out online.

NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni takes it from there.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: For that, we are joined by two journalists from the Web site Daily Download. Lauren Ashburn is the site’s editor in chief. Howard Kurtz is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Lauren, Howie, welcome back this year.

As technology has evolved, employers are being forced to rewrite their social media rules. What is it that we’re seeing?

LAUREN ASHBURN, Daily-Download.com: Well, we’re seeing a series of rulings from the National Labor Relations Board.

And what we’re finding is that workers are allowed to complain online, on Facebook, if they want to improve wages and working conditions. Otherwise, forget about it.

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: You might think you would get in trouble for dissing the boss in some of these cases or complaining. I guess there was one case where several case workers in Buffalo got fired for complaining they were working too hard in their jobs.

That was overturned by the Labor Board because it was considered protected speech.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: That’s really fascinating.

And does it matter if you’re posting things saying you’re bored at work or that you don’t necessarily feel like you’re getting all that much done in your work that day?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, I think there are two — two things that you have to look at.

If you are, when you are talking about work, doing something in a way that could get you more wages or in a way that could get a better working environment, then it’s OK.

HOWARD KURTZ: And, now, if you’re not…

LAUREN ASHBURN: If you’re not, saying you’re bored is going to cause some problems.

HOWARD KURTZ: Especially if your boredom leads to you spending several hours while at work being on Twitter or Facebook.

But it depends on the category. For example, if you’re a journalist — there was another case the Labor Board looked at where they upheld the firing of a reporter for The Arizona Daily Star — The New York Times had a nice piece on this — who was bored and posted online, saying, “What, no overnight homicide? You’re slacking, Tucson.”

Well, that was considered not acceptable for his employer at the newspaper.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: So, bad taste might be a problem.

But what about — how are companies handling this? Are they being forced to expand their policies? I mean, how broad does it need to be?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, the NLRB is actually urging or pushing companies to rewrite their policies, so that they’re in line with their new series of recommendations.

So they’re trying to get the Costcos of the world and other large companies…

HOWARD KURTZ: Target, General Motors are among those.

LAUREN ASHBURN: … to do it. And Wal-Mart gets an A-plus, because Wal-Mart already rewrote its policies to be more in line with what the NLRB is saying.

HOWARD KURTZ: And what the chairman of the Labor Relations, Mark Pearce, is saying is that many people these days use social media as the new watercooler. So, if you couldn’t get fired for standing around with some fellow workers complaining about the boss or the working conditions, you can’t get fired for putting it on Twitter or Facebook, even though a lot more people will see it.

Now, very different if you were in politics. For example, there’s a Virginia sheriff’s deputy who was fired for going on Facebook and liking the opponent of his boss who was going to run against the sheriff. And that is still being fought out in the courts.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Wow.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And, oftentimes, there is an officer who friended an old chum of his from high school, and the chum had a criminal record which the police officer didn’t know about. And he was disciplined for that.

So, especially if you’re in law enforcement, you’re not allowed to show guns and you’re not allowed to show up in uniform unless you get prerequisite approval.

HOWARD KURTZ: Here’s one that’s a bad idea. Congressman Rick Larsen of Washington state fired three staffers who had the brilliant notion of putting on Twitter shots of themselves with Jack Daniels at their desk while they were having …

HOWARD KURTZ: … drinking fun.

Anybody could see that that is not a wise idea.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Right. It’s a whole new world, really.

And when you see companies, you know, taking policies like this, are they trying to get specific on certain types of things, you know, social media sharing apps like Instagram, for example? Are they having to govern that as technology evolves pretty rapidly? It’s more than just Facebook and Twitter, right?

LAUREN ASHBURN: It is.

And I think that the corporations that are writing these laws now have to be nimble enough to change the laws as new, more popular sites like Instagram or Pinterest come along. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter.

HOWARD KURTZ: This is where we all live now.

But, at the same time, the law is murky. It’s evolving. So, if you’re going to complain online, I would advise being a little bit careful, because you might have to hire a lawyer. Even if you ultimately win, could eat up a lot of your time.

LAUREN ASHBURN: But what you’re saying is, this is where we all live online. That’s not true.

There is a large percentage of the older population that refuses to do Facebook. And most of — many are retired, so this discussion wouldn’t apply to them.

HOWARD KURTZ: But, every year, that changes, as the younger people who grew up with this technology move up in the corporate world.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure.

And help people understand this a little bit as well, because if you have 100 Facebook friends and your boss isn’t one of them, how could you even get in trouble from your employer?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Because somebody could tell somebody could tell somebody who tells your boss.

Right? Nothing is private on the Internet. Even if your Facebook page is marked as private, if your friend can see the post, then they can tell someone about the post.

HOWARD KURTZ: It’s like a giant game of telephone. You never know when it is going to go viral. And it may reach people far beyond your little circle of Twitter followers or Facebook followers.

LAUREN ASHBURN: For example, I interviewed someone, Diane O’Meara, whose picture was supposedly Manti Te’o's girlfriend.

HOWARD KURTZ: The Notre Dame college football star with the imaginary girlfriend.

LAUREN ASHBURN: She had a private Facebook page. Someone just took her picture and pretended she was somebody else.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Wow. Well, it’s really fascinating.

Lauren, Howie, thank you very much. Interesting discussion.

We’d like to hear from you. What kind of social media policies govern your workplace? How should they evolve? You can weigh in using the open thread we have posted our home page. And don’t forget to like the NewsHour on Facebook.