Twitter and Facebook have seen no shortage of media coverage over recent weeks, with everyone ranging from elected representatives to sports stars spending time on one application or another, to impostors spending time on the sites instead of their more famous counterparts.
However, some news stories should raise caution flags for employees about how they use Twitter, Facebook, or whichever social networking site they prefer, and may have employees wondering whether they can lose their jobs over some loose tweets or status updates.
Friend or Foe?
One story relates how Nathan Singh, a 27-year-old U.K. prison warden, got fired for getting too "friendly" with 13 criminals on Facebook. Another related how former Philadelphia Eagles employee/fan Dan Leone got fired after he wrote a Facebook post criticizing how the team lost a player to the Denver Broncos. And last, but not least, one article talked about the humiliation suffered by "theoconnor" (later nicknamed "Cisco Fatty"), a potential Cisco new hire, that made a not-so-kind "Tweet" about a job offer from the company, although it's unclear whether "theoconnor" paid any career price for their Twitter posting.
So it seems pretty clear that yes, you can be fired for social media activity in the majority of circumstances. Because most states have "at will" employment laws, getting fired for online behavior of almost any sort is probably legal, with a few possible exceptions. To be more blunt about it, an employee probably doesn't even have to write negatively about their employer (or consort with criminals) in order to be fired. The noteworthy exceptions primarily involve an employee's:
But what if you're doing your posting on your own time and in the privacy of your own home? That won't make a difference considering the material being viewed was posted online for the whole world to see. Employees and those looking for work should also take note that it is getting quite common for supervisors and employers to use search engines to look up existing and prospective employees.
So what about constitutional Free Speech rights? Well, if an employee works for the government he or she might have an argument, but otherwise, they can probably forget about it. The reason is that the First Amendment protects individuals from having the government infringe their rights, but it doesn't apply to private employers.
These days, employers are often making it a point to include, within their employee handbooks or workplace policies, rules regarding employees' use of the internet. Employees should make sure they find out about existing policies, but regardless of whether one exists, it's probably a good idea to simply ensure that whatever posts and pics get put up online are something the employee truly would want the whole world to see.
Editor's Note, January 26, 2017: This post was first published in April 2009. It has since been updated.