The Internet has created a whole new pond for employment lawyers to fish in. But you’re not powerless to your employees’ embarrassing—and potentially illegal—online activities. You can discipline employees who go over the line.
An employer has a right to hold its employees responsible for their off-duty, online postings if employees use the postings to attack the company, harass co-workers or even violate company policy by drawing negative attention to the organization.
Employers can regulate such off-duty actions only within narrow limits. You should specify what off-duty activity is prohibited in terms of unbecoming, immoral or illegal behavior.
The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, said a California fire department was allowed to terminate a firefighter who posted video online of himself stripping out of his uniform. Such “free speech” wasn’t protected, the court said, because it “was detrimental to the mission and functions of the employer.”
Recent case: A Florida municipality fired a public-works employee for appearing in several crude Internet videos. The worker appeared on a shock jock’s web site in a fishnet T-shirt, where he endured several “tortures,” including applying fire ants to his genitals.
Though public employers don’t have as much freedom to fire as private employers, they can still impose rules on their workers. City officials relied on a department rule prohibiting “conduct unbecoming even if it’s off-duty conduct and even if it’s not unlawful.”
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