Social Media at Work

Worker protection, legal impact of Facebook era discussed by agency chair
Social Media at Work
Friday, November 2, 2012

Esta R. Bigler '70 framed the discussion with National Labor Relations Board Chairman Mark G. Pearce A&S '75 this way: is the board getting tough on employers?

And, is the board staying current with workplace realities and the rights of employees -- union and nonunion -- to discuss working conditions?

A two-hour conversation on the legal implications of social media in the workplace followed. Hosted by the ILR Labor and Employment Law Program, which Bigler directs, the event was offered last week in conjunction with the Cornell Law School and held at the ILR Conference Center in Manhattan.

Does a stray or casual comment, Pearce asked the 75 people gathered, "take on a different dimension when seen by six million people? Does it make a difference?"

Many in the workplace are grappling with what it means when an employee writes or "likes" a comment about work on Facebook and is discharged because of it, Bigler said. ShouId that worker be protected by the National Labor Relations Act?

Pearce said, "There is opportunity in determining social media cases … people are desperate and hungry" for clarification. He discussed several cases, each with a unique set of facts.

Panelist Gwynne A. Wilcox predicted, "Everyone is on some kind of device 24 hours a day. The (legal) issues are going to be rather fascinating."

Guidance of the National Labor Relations Board will help workplaces navigate what is legal and illegal in a rapidly changing gray zone constantly widened by social media technology, she said.

Workplace conflicts rooted in new technology are being taken on by the national labor board, an agency that previously seemed to shirk those issues, said Wilcox.

She is a partner in Levy Ratner, P.C., and a law firm that cosponsored Friday's two-hour discussion in front of 75 attendees. "Rip van Winkle has woken up," she said, referring to the board's interest in understanding issues involving the internet from e-mail to Twitter.

Panelist Marshall Babson, who served on the board for three years in the 1980s, defended what he described as an agency harshly critiqued by both Republicans and Democrats.

"It is small minded and misguided" to question the board's existence, said Babson, a partner in Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a New York City law firm. We can all disagree with a decision the Board makes but employee rights are an important part of democracy, he emphasized.

The labor board is embracing social media as a public communications tool. "We need to tell people what we're doing," said Pearce, sworn in as a board member in 2010 and named its chair in 2011. Pearce has taught courses for the ILR labor studies program in Buffalo.