Click at your peril. In the past few weeks, more companies have been snooping through the online universe in an effort to bring their workers in line. Virgin Atlantic airline fired 13 employees for what they said on Facebook. The charge: The employees "brought the company into disrepute." The evidence: a discussion that said its airplanes (their workplace) harbored cockroaches and that its customers were "chavs," the British slang equivalent of "white trash."
As the economy sours, companies have an incentive to expunge workers from their payrolls, and evidence of insubordination makes for some solid ammunition for a quick firing. Which is probably why more axe men are poring through the social networking sites. British Airways workers at London's Gatwick airport are also under investigation for spouting off on Facebook. The transgressions there happened in a closed group where posts complained about "smelly" passengers, American accents, and people who briefly hold boarding passes with their teeth while going through departure checkpoints.
Naturally, companies don't want to look bad. And it's also lousy judgment for opinionated employees to bite the hand that feeds them by complaining about their bosses in a place where they can easily be caught and identified. Let Miss Manners address morality, though. I'm more skeptical about whether employers have the right to dump you merely for having a negative opinion of where you work. I'm also wary of any boss who chases down the details of a worker's personal life.
Granted, both of those incidents happened in the U.K., where laws are tighter when it comes to what you can say in public. But I question the legality of this kind of thing on our own shores. Just this week, a cheerleader for the New England Patriots was chucked from the squad after her bosses found a distasteful photo of her posing with a drunken friend. There were some other issues there, too (defamatory body graffiti, the fact she's under drinking age), but all the same, her career suicide began with a discovery on Facebook.
Leave crime out of it. As long as the statements are true, don't condone or admit crime, and don't spread trade secrets, there's not much legitimate damage that can be traced to a measly post. Calling the customers of a business you work for something like "white trash" is in poor taste, but even poor taste is protected by the First Amendment, which is something George Lopez should get on his knees and thank God for daily. Besides, some of the things that got those airline employees in the doghouse wouldn't have brought a batted eyelash if they had been uttered over a beer instead of via a keyboard.
Presumably, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways would have been thrilled if the Facebook posts praised the food and the service of their fine flying institutions, so the mere act of talking out of school is not really the issue. They really want to control what's said.
I once worked for a TV game show that forced me to sign a confidentiality agreement barring me from discussing the specifics of my job. (Despite the gag, the paycheck was lousy.) Jobs that put employees in the spotlight frequently come with a range of image-related stipulations. Spokespeople and clergy must abide by certain standards of behavior, and actors are often required to stay out of the sun lest a tan make them turn a funny color under theatrical lighting. But in all of those cases, they agree to the rules at the start of their employment.
How about more average jobs, such as working at Wal-Mart or in the trenches at the Winn-Dixie? Without signed agreements in place, do you think companies have the legal right to fire employees if they whine on their own time? When you're on Facebook, after all, you're clearly labeled as an individual and not as an official spokesman. And as long as you're not disseminating trade secrets, is there any real damage to account for?
When an employer buys your time by hiring you, does it also buy your approval?
Update: And it's happened again. Texas Longhorn lineman Buck Burnette was just sacked for calling Obama the n-word through his Facebook status message.