Author Archives: Kimberly Page Walker

Offensive Facebook Posts May Be Protected Speech

Human resources experts often recommend a detailed analysis before disciplining an employee for offensive statements. On April 21, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals highlighted this requirement and forced an employer to reinstate an employee who had been fired for posting highly offensive comments about his supervisor. Although this case, National Labor Relations Board v. Pier Sixty LLC, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6974 (2d Cir. April 21, 2017), involved a union organizing campaign, such a dispute can arise outside the union context. It can arise in a breakroom conversation, a media interview, a picket sign, or a social media post. If the content involves protected speech, such as criticism of the terms and conditions of the employee’s employment, and especially if the speech purports to speak on behalf of or for the benefit of others, the speech may be protected, whether or not there is a union involved.

In Pier Sixty, the employee posted on Facebook that his supervisor is a “NASTY MOTHER F—ER” and “F—his mother and his entire f—ing family!!!”  The post criticized his supervisor’s communications style, saying, “…don’t know how to talk to people!!!!”  The post also included a pro-union statement, “Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!”

The court weighed the protections (here, concerted activity) versus how abusive or “opprobrious” the comments were. The court reviewed the context of the statements, including that the employer was found to have permitted past vulgarity and to have engaged in other efforts to impede unionizing efforts. Commenting that these posts fall on the “outer bounds” of protected activity, the court declared the posts to be within the bounds of protected concerted activity and required the employer to bring the discharged employee back to work.

Employers should ensure that workplace rules are consistently enforced and that the reason for discharge does not involve and does not appear to involve a protected reason. Employers should be prepared to articulate and, if required, prove the lawful reason for discharge rather than relying on at-will status.

Kimberly Page Walker
kwalker@williamsparker.com
(941) 329-6628

The Customer is Not Always Right…

Most employers understand Title VII’s requirement to provide a workplace free of unlawful harassment and discrimination. Some employers may not be aware that this obligation extends beyond co-workers’ harassment to include customers’ mistreatment of employees. Recently a situation arose on an Alaska Airlines flight that demonstrated how this obligation to provide a workplace free of unlawful harassment and discrimination extends to customers.  During a female flight attendant’s life-vest demonstration, a male passenger yelled, “ooh, sexy.” When asked by the flight attendant to be respectful, the passenger responded “C’mon, I’m just playing with you.” Shortly thereafter, Alaska Airlines required the passenger to leave the plane.

When an employer becomes aware of harassment on the basis of a legally protected characteristic (sex, disability, religion, race, color, etc.), the employer is required to take prompt remedial action to protect its employees – even if the harasser is a customer.

It should be noted that despite the offensive nature of the passenger’s conduct, that conduct alone would not constitute sexual harassment creating liability for the employer. However, when combined with other conduct the flight attendant might face (from anyone, that day or over time), failure to act in the employee’s defense could certainly give rise to a harassment claim and employer liability. The EEOC advises, “Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

For harassing and offensive conduct to rise to the level of unlawful harassment (sexual harassment, racial harassment, etc.), the conduct must relate to a protected characteristic or conduct, and enduring the conduct must become, expressly or impliedly, a condition of employment or be so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider the work environment to be intimidating, hostile, or abusive. The law also protects employees from retaliation relating to complaints and investigations.

Defending these claims is expensive. More and more employers are stepping in earlier to prevent them altogether. In this case, Alaska Airlines made a strong statement in favor of protecting employees, dissuading future conduct of this type, and prevented future claims. When the situation is not as time-sensitive, a quick call to an employment lawyer may help employers frame a diplomatic approach that fully protects the employee and prevents harassment.

Kimberly Page Walker
kwalker@williamsparker.com
(941) 329-6628