Roseanne Barr, known for her big mouth and abrasive humor, is no stranger to controversy. (I still cringe when I recall her rendition of the national anthem.) Unfortunately for her, and the more than 200 people who worked on the successful 2018 reboot of her ’90s television series, no one was laughing when she went on a late-night Twitter tirade that included racial insults about a former official in the Obama administration. Although she reportedly begged to keep her show in the aftermath, the damage was already done, and she was summarily fired by ABC.
The Roseanne debacle is just the latest example of how someone’s posts on social media can result in termination for misconduct. The ubiquity of social media–and its ability to wreak personal and professional havoc–make it crucial for employers to include a social media policy in their employment handbooks. Although the policy cannot be so broad that it penalizes concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (such as employees commiserating about their pay or working conditions), employers can and should warn employees against using statements, photographs, video, or other media that reasonably could be viewed as malicious, obscene, or physically threatening.
A social media policy also should prohibit statements that disparage customers or would constitute harassment or bullying. Examples might include offensive posts meant to harm someone’s reputation or that could contribute to a hostile work environment on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion, or any other status protected by law or company policy.
HR pros should keep in mind that taking an adverse employment action based on social media activity is less risky after an employee is hired. If you plan on denying employment to a job applicant based on social media content, you should maintain a copy of the offending post to document the basis for your decision, and keep in mind that some state laws may limit your ability to refuse to hire an applicant based on off-duty conduct. You also may be subject to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (and corresponding state laws) if you use a third party to investigate job applicants’ social media activity.
Social Media Tips for Dummies
Unfortunately, social media meltdowns are a sign of the times and a common part of 21st century life. Therefore, as a public service, I leave you with my social media tips for dummies (or tips for generally acting like a decent human being):
- Don’t post or send anything over the Internet that you wouldn’t want your grandmother or pastor to see. (I have four pastors as Facebook friends, just in case I ever get the urge to go rogue.)
- Don’t share inappropriate photos.
- Don’t make offensive or racially insensitive comments or use obscene language (like, I don’t know, calling a woman a feckless c-word–yes, I’m talking to you, Samantha Bee).
- Don’t post anything when you are impaired by alcohol or drugs (including Ambien–yes, I’m talking to you, Roseanne).
In the words of Sergeant Esterhaus from “Hill Street Blues” (if you are under the age of 40, you probably have no idea who or what that is so just Google it), “let’s be careful out there.”