On May 9, 2011, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint alleging that Hispanics United, a Buffalo non-profit that provides social services to low-income clients, violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) when it fired five employees after they used Facebook to criticize working conditions. This complaint comes on the heels of two other highly publicized situations in which the NLRB asserted that companies violated employees’ rights by limiting the information that could be posted on social media sites.

Earlier this year, employers watched with interest as the NLRB pursued an employer in Connecticut after that company fired an individual for posting a negative comment about her supervisor on her own Facebook page, using her home computer to do so. The NLRB argued that the employer maintained and enforced overly restrictive policies regarding blogging and Internet postings outside of work, and that such enforcement by the company could be viewed as a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which precludes restriction of employees’ “concerted activity.” That case ultimately was settled, and no administrative or judicial determination was made on the issue. However, the employer has since revised its policy to be less restrictive.

In April of this year, a settlement between the Newspaper Guild and a publishing company avoided a threatened complaint by the NLRB that would have included an accusation that the company inappropriately reprimanded a reporter for a message posted on Twitter. After posting a message that said “One way to make this the best place to work is to deal honestly with Guild members,” the reporter was contacted by phone by her manager and was told that her post was a violation of the company’s social media policy. The NLRB said that it would file a complaint against the company, because the call to the reporter could “chill” her ability to discuss working conditions; it also claimed that the company’s social media policy was overly restrictive. As part of the settlement of that matter, the company agreed to negotiate a new social media policy, one that would include language that would protect employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity about working conditions, as provided under federal law.

The NLRB’s complaint against Hispanics United, filed May 9, 2011, stems from a situation in which an employee posted – to her own Facebook page – information in support of a co-worker who had claimed that the organization did not do enough to help its clients. That post generated responses and additional comments from other employees who criticized their working conditions and defended their own performances. After hearing about the postings, Hispanics United fired five individuals who participated in the online discussion. The basis of the firings was that the online comments constituted “harassment” of the employee mentioned in the originally posting. However, the NLRB is asserting that the Facebook postings involved discussion among employees about their own working conditions, and therefore was protected activity. A hearing on the matter is scheduled in Buffalo, NY, for June 22, 2011.

The interesting difference between the earlier situations and this most recent complaint is the fact that Hispanics United is a non-union company. Employers must recognize that the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits the restriction of “concerted activity” among employees, protects both union and non-union workers. Further, the NLRB has made it clear that it can file a complaint based upon a company’s written internet policy even in the absence of a specific factual instance of violation of such policy. Under the NLRA, employees have the right to engage in protected concerted activity, which can include discussions, meetings, or even a single employee who is discussing the personal character of a particular supervisor.

This case is another instance that reminds employers to take care to draft employment policies – not only social media policies – that do not impinge upon employees’ rights to act in concert and do not keep employees from acting to work toward positive changes in the terms and conditions of the workplace.