Social media use is getting some firefighters into professional trouble. A Boston firefighter was placed on leave last year after posting racially charged, violent material on Facebook. His incendiary posts raise questions about his fitness to serve the public and expose his department to public criticism. They are just one example of mistakes a firefighter can make when posting online.
Employers can fire employees for social media use
Employees in every industry are finding out the hard way that employers are able to fire them for what they post on social media, even in channels that they believe are private. Unless a firefighter is working under a contract, chances are good that his or her employment is “at-will.” That means that an employer often can fire an employee at any time, with or without cause. In the right situation a firefighter’s social media posts may give the department “cause” to terminate the employment relationship.
Bear in mind that even though employers can show interest in an employee’s social media accounts, they cannot require employees to disclose their login credentials as a condition of employment. NRS 613.135. This arguably prevents employers from requiring their employees to give them access to their private social media feeds (i.e., as “friends” on Facebook). However, a firefighter could voluntarily accept a connection with a manager or other colleagues and effectively waive any expectation of privacy.
Firefighters should know that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides that employees cannot be fired in retaliation for using social media to organize and discuss job-related issues. Complaints about job conditions, including issues with managers, enjoy greater leeway than other kinds of potentially unacceptable content. But care should be taken to keep such posts professional.
Kinds of posts that should be avoided
There are many kinds of social media posts that could get a firefighter into trouble. Many of them are simply common sense. Here are some examples:
- Posts that breach confidentiality obligations. Firefighters have confidentiality obligations with regard to members of the public as well as internal department matters. For example, posting photos of a fire scene is potentially actionable, especially if the photos include members of the public.
- Posts that show evidence of illegal or discouraged activity. It almost goes without saying that a firefighter should not post photos of himself or herself doing something illegal, like using prohibited drugs. Even posting material that expresses a positive opinion of such things can create problems. In Nevada firefighters need to be especially cautious now that recreational marijuana has been decriminalized: even though marijuana use is no longer a state criminal offense, its use by firefighters is still subject to employer restrictions.
- Posts that violate department policy. Firefighters should be familiar with the policies that govern their social media use. For example, most fire departments prohibit unapproved use of official uniforms and insignia for unofficial purposes.
- Posts that may be offensive. As public servants firefighters have an obligation to avoid making racially or sexually inappropriate comments on social media and elsewhere. Whether content is offensive isn’t necessarily up to the firefighter. Assume that content will be judged by a wide audience, and that it may reflect poorly upon the employer even though it is not posted in an official capacity.
GGRM serves the Las Vegas firefighting community
Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez is proud of its long history of service to the Las Vegas first-responder community. If you are a firefighter with questions about your social media use, please reach out to us. For a free attorney consultation, call us at 702-388-4476 or send us a request through our site.