While the case has been settled, it was unfortunately settled between the parties rather than in the court system. Had this case gone to court today as originally scheduled, the legal system would hav had the opportunity to set a precedent on social media and employment issues. As it stands now, several questions are left unanswered regarding how far employers can go in regulating social media use by its employees. Regardless, the case between American Medical Response and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has serious implications for social media mavens within the fire service.
The first implication concerns employees and their use of social media. According to the NLRB, employees have some protections when bashing their current employers on social media platforms. As long as employees limit their status updates to issues concerning wages, working conditions, or union organizing, those updates will be considered ‘Protected Concerted Activities.’ With that said, employers (ie: Fire Departments and ambulance companies) are not able to discipline their employees for their social media usage. However, it should be noted that while the employee may have protections from their current employer, they still hold themselves open and accountable for the things that they say in civil court. Any defamation you make against other persons, notably your boss or fellow coworkers, would be considered libel. I’ll encourage fellow firefighters to use a little common sense to avoid any grey area. Follow this simple rule: if you wouldn’t say it to your bosses face, don’t post it to Facebook.
The other major implication focuses on Fire Departments. What made this case interesting was the fact that AMR actually had a policy in place dealing with social media. For the most part, public safety agencies from across the country are way behind the curve in this regard. As Fire Chiefs begin to create social media policies in light of the recent employment issues, it will be important to incorporate the lessons learned from this incident. First and foremost is the fact that your policy can not outlaw all use of social media by employees. As noted from the NLRB decision, employees have the right to associate with fellow employees in the social media forum to discuss wages, working conditions, and organizing. Your policy will at a minimum need to allow for your employees to have that opportunity. For other thoughts on Fire Department social media policies, see Ed Robson’s December 2010 post on FireRescue1.
I expect that Curt Varone over at FireLaw and Bradley Shear at Shear on Social Media Law will have posts about this incident in the very near future. As they share their wisdom, I’ll be sure to forward it along.