Terminating Employees Based on Online Conduct

sexting.jpgThere are countless online platforms where people can express themselves, from social media profiles to comment sections on news websites. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes just how much their online statements can affect their offline lives.

In recent months, there have been multiple headline-making stories regarding employee terminations arising from online statements and images, which often lead to wrongful termination claims. As such, it is crucial for Minnesota employers to understand how — and if — they can fire an employee for something they do or say online.

Reasons matter

Most employment relationships are at-will, which means employers can terminate the employee for any reason, or no reason at all. However, the reason behind the termination will matter if the employee files a wrongful termination lawsuit claiming the firing was unlawful.

Employees cannot be fired for participating in protected activity, like discussing poor working conditions or reporting sexual harassment. Terminations also cannot be retaliatory, or discriminatory based on a protected class.

However, if an employee says something on Facebook that his/her/their employer considers disloyal, or makes inappropriate comments using the company’s Twitter account, then employers may be within their rights to terminate that employee.

Plenty of gray areas

That being said, the issue of wrongful termination is hardly black-and-white, and online activity adds a shade of gray. For instance, an article from Forbes describes how a termination based on online activity could cross the line from legitimate to wrongful.

In some cases, the issue could come down to whether other employees were involved in the discourse, or whether the behavior in which a person engaged in online damaged his/her/their company.

Preventing disputes in the first place

Employers can prevent wrongful termination claims by having a written social media policy. These policies should provide clear, specific guidelines for employees in terms of affiliation with a company, unacceptable content, and the discussion of sensitive or confidential matters.

In the digital environment, it isn’t always easy to know what real-world protections are in place. However, with legal guidance and a clear social media policy, employers and employees can both better understand their rights in these difficult situations.