NLRB Opens Useful Escape Hatch for Employers Responding to Obnoxious Social Media Conduct

Selling luxury cars in a down economy can be tough enough without employees mocking a company-sponsored sales event on their Facebook page. An administrative law judge (ALJ) with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued an opinion last week holding that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protected an employee’s sarcastic post, but nonetheless upheld the dealership’s termination decision because it was based on other, unprotected Facebook content. The decision is an important reminder for employers that when protected and unprotected content appear on the same Facebook wall, the protected content does not shield the employee from discipline based on the unprotected content.

The Knauz BMW dealership in Lake Bluff, Illinois, planned the “Ultimate Driving Event” to introduce the redesigned BMW 5 Series to its customers. At the event, the dealership not only offered BMW representatives, rather than the dealership’s sales staff, to take customers for a test drive, but also served hot dogs from a hot dog car as well as chocolate chip cookies, small bags of Doritos, and water. Upon learning of the dealership’s plans for the event, salesman Bobby Becker, and at least one other salesperson questioned the culinary selection. After the event, Becker tweaked the dealership on his Facebook page: “The small 8 oz. bags of chips, and the $2.00 cookie plate from Sam’s Club, and the semi fresh apples and oranges were such a nice touch . . . but to top it all off . . . the Hot Dog Cart. Where our clients could attain a over cooked weiner and a stale bunn . . . ”

Becker’s rag on the Ultimate Driving Event did not stand alone. On the same day, he also posted about a potentially serious mishap at the nearby Land Rover dealership also owned by Knauz BMW. Becker described the drama on his Facebook page, alongside a photograph with the following comment: “This [photograph shows] what happens when a sales Person sitting in the front passenger seat (Former Sales Person, actually) allows a 13 year old boy to get behind the wheel of a 6000 lb. truck built and designed to pretty much drive over anything. The kid drives over his father’s foot and into the pond in all about 4 seconds and destroys a $50,000 truck. OOOPS!”

In deciding whether Knauz BMW violated the NLRA by discharging Becker, the ALJ agreed with the NLRB’s General Counsel that Becker’s Facebook comments about the food at the Ultimate Drive Event were protected concerted activity, a position previously expressed by the General Counsel in its August 2011 report on the NLRB’s social media cases which we discussed in an earlier blog post. The ALJ reasoned that Becker’s comments were protected because it was possible, albeit not likely, that the food selection could have had an impact on Becker’s commission-based compensation. In the words of the ALJ, “some customers [possibly] were turned off by the food offerings at the sales event and [perhaps] did not purchase a car because of it.” The ALJ also found that Becker’s Facebook posting was concerted activity — even though no co-worker participated in, or commented on, the post — because the post was the “logical outgrowth of” the criticisms by Becker and at least one other co-worker of the food selection during the sales force’s meeting with management before the event. This result demonstrates just how broadly the NLRB interprets the concept of “protected concerted activity” which cannot properly be the subject of employee discipline.

Notably, the ALJ rejected Knauz BMW’s argument that Becker’s Facebook post should lose its protection under the NLRA because the post disparaged the dealership. Without much analysis, the ALJ noted that the NLRB had previously rejected the same argument in cases where employees’ protected speech was mocking, sarcastic, satirical, ironic, demeaning or even degrading. It appears that an employee’s protected speech will need to reach a high level of injuriousness before the Board will strip that speech of the NLRA’s protections.

Although Becker had engaged in protected concerted activity, the ALJ still determined that Knauz BMW’s decision to axe Becker was lawful. The ALJ found persuasive the testimony of management employees that Becker’s facetious comments about the serious and potentially deadly Land Rover mishap triggered the termination decision. The ALJ then determined that this post did not constitute protected concerted activity because “it was posted solely by Becker,” “without any discussion with any other employee,” and “had no connection to any other employees’ terms and conditions of employment.”

The lesson for employers? Employees who post some protected social media content do not protect themselves with impunity from adverse employment action. Employers can rely on unrelated, unprotected social media posts to justify termination;they just need to be prepared to prove that the unprotected speech was the driving force behind the disciplinary decision.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.