Board ALJ Finds Firings Based on Facebook Messages Violated NLRA

September 8, 2011

By: Subhash Viswanathan

In an earlier post, we reported that the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint in a case involving the discharge of several employees for posting Facebook messages related to a co-worker’s criticism of their work performance. The case subsequently went to trial before an Administrative Law Judge. On September 2, the ALJ issued an opinion finding that the firings violated the NLRA by interfering with the employees’ right to engage in “concerted activity for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.”

The Facebook postings occurred after one of the discharged employees learned that a co-worker had complained about the job performance of several employees and had expressed her intent to take the complaints to management. The employee who learned of the criticism posted a message on her Facebook page soliciting comments from other employees about the complaining co-worker’s criticism, and used the co-worker’s name. Predictably, several employees responded expressing various negative opinions about the criticism, the complaining co-worker, and the difficulty of various aspects of their jobs. None of the employees made the posts during work time, and none of them used a work computer. The employer’s Executive Director subsequently met with the five employees and fired all of them for harassment and bullying in violation of the employer’s anti-harassment policy.

The main issue in the case was whether the conduct in which the employees had engaged was protected concerted activity within the meaning of the NLRA. Relying on analogous NLRB precedent, the ALJ noted that expressions related to defense of job performance are protected activity. In response to the employer’s argument that the activity was not “concerted” because it was individualized, the ALJ concluded that the activity was concerted because the employees’ Facebook messages were the first step toward group action to defend themselves against accusations they could reasonably believe would be brought to management. The opinion states that: “Employees have a protected right to discuss matters affecting their employment amongst themselves. Explicit or implicit criticism by a co-worker of the manner in which they are performing their jobs is a subject about which employee discussion is protected by Section 7. That is particularly true in this case, where at least some of the discriminatees had an expectation that [the complaining co-worker] might take her criticisms to management.”

Finally, the ALJ rejected the employer’s argument that it was merely enforcing its anti-harassment policy. The Judge concluded that the policy, which prohibited harassment based on protected characteristics, was not violated because there was no evidence the complaining co-worker was harassed, and no evidence she was harassed based on one of the protected characteristics listed in the policy.