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OK to discipline for bullying online posts

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When an employee uses social media to threaten a customer, colleague or member of the public, employers understandably get concerned. But if you have solid policy guidance on proper workplace behavior, you shouldn’t worry too much about punishing abusive or offensive online behavior that crosses the line into bullying or worse.

While this recent case is from academia, it carries important lessons for employers, too.

Recent case: Craig, a licensed practical nurse, decided to take courses aimed at earning a degree and becoming a registered nurse.

As part of the program he enrolled in, he had to adhere to a series of professional conduct rules that were outlined in the student handbook. Many of the policies embodied the ideal of maintaining proper behavioral boundaries when interacting with patients, co-workers and fellow students.

A fellow student complained to one of Craig’s instructors about postings she had seen on Craig’s public Facebook page. She claimed the posts made her uncomfortable. The instructor went to the head of the nursing program and they decided to call Craig into a meeting. When Craig asked what the meeting was about, they didn’t say.

At the meeting, Craig was confronted with several postings, including two in which he mentioned having a problem with anger management and a third in which he referred to someone in the nursing program as a “stupid bitch” who would flunk out.

Craig was expelled for violating the professionalism standard. He sued, but didn’t get far. The court said his posts broke known rules. (Keefe v. Adams, et al., No. 14-2988, 8th Cir., 2016)

Final note: Be aware that employees have more social media leeway when discussing working conditions on social media (and elsewhere). Don’t punish posts concerning the terms and conditions of employment.

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