This Article has explained the many responsibilities employees owe their employers. But workers are not robots. They have minds of their own and the freedom to criticize their bosses and firms, even if managers and companies do not always welcome such criticism. What kind of criticism is fair and ethical, what is legal, and how should a whistleblowing employee be treated?
Limiting Pay Secrecy
For decades, most U.S. companies enforced pay secrecy, a policy that prohibits employees from disclosing or discussing salaries among themselves. The reason was obvious: Companies did not want to be scrutinized for their salary decisions. They knew that if workers were aware of what each was paid, they would question the inequities that pay secrecy kept hidden from them.
Recently, the situation has begun to change. Ten states have enacted new laws banning employers from imposing pay secrecy rules: California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont.32 The real game changer came in 2012, when multiple decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and various federal courts made it clear that most pay secrecy policies are unenforceable and violate federal labor law (National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 157-158).33 Generally speaking, labor law lends employees the right to engage in collective activities, including that of discussing with each other the specifics of their individual employment arrangements, which includes how much they are paid. Moreover, the applicable sections of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) apply to union and non-union employees, so there is no exception made for companies whose employees are non-unionized, meaning the law protects all workers. In 2014, President Barack Obama issued an executive order banning companies that engaged in federal contracting from prohibiting such salary discussions.34
Opening up the discussion of pay acknowledges the growing desire of employees to be well informed and to have the freedom to question or criticize their company. If employees cannot talk about something at work because they think it will make their boss angry, where do they go instead? Social media can be a likely answer. Protections generally extend to salary discussions on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram; Section 7 of the NRLA protects two or more employees who act together or discuss improving their terms and conditions of employment in person or online, just as it does in other settings.
Speaking Out on Social Media
Does the First Amendment protect employees at work who criticize their boss or their company? Generally, no. That answer may surprise those who believe that the First Amendment protects all speech. It does not. The Bill of Rights was created to protect citizens from an overreaching government, not from their employer. The First Amendment reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The key words are “Congress shall make no law,” meaning the content of speech is something the government and politicians cannot control with laws or policies. However, this right of free speech is generally not applicable to the private sector workplace and does not cover criticism of your employer.
Does that mean an employee can be fired for criticizing the company or boss? Yes, under most circumstances. Therefore, if someone posts a message on social media that says, “My boss is a jerk” or “My company is a terrible place to work,” the likelihood is that the person can be fired without any recourse, assuming he or she is an employee at will (see the discussion of at-will employment earlier in this chapter). Unless the act of firing constitutes a violation under federal law, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the speech is not protected speech, and thus the speaker (the employee) is not protected.
At some point, all of us may get angry with our companies or supervisors, but we still have a duty to keep our disputes in-house and not make public any situations we are attempting to resolve internally. Employers typically are prohibited from discussing human resource matters relating to any specific employees. Employees, too, should keep complaints confidential unless and until crimes are charged or civil suits are filed.
Real World Example
Adrian Duane and IXL Learning
Adrian Duane had worked for IXL, a Silicon Valley educational technology company, for about a year when he got into a dispute with his supervisor over Duane’s ability to work flexible hours after he returned from medical leave following transgender surgery.
Duane posted a critical comment on Glassdoor.com after he said his supervisor refused to accommodate a scheduling request. Duane’s critique said, in part: “If you’re not a family-oriented White or Asian straight or mainstream gay person with 1.7 kids who really likes softball—then you’re likely to find yourself on the outside. . . . Most management do not know what the word ‘discrimination’ means, nor do they seem to think it matters.”
According to court documents, Paul Mishkin, IXL’s CEO, confronted Duane with a printout of the Glassdoor review during a meeting about his complaints, at which time IXL terminated Duane. IXL claimed the derogatory post showed “poor judgment and ethical values.” Security had already cleared out Duane’s desk and boxed his personal effects, and he was escorted from the premises. According to IXL, the company had granted Duane’s requests for time off or modified work schedules and welcomes all individuals equally regardless of gender identity.
The NLRB heard Duane’s case. Judge Gerald M. Etchingham said he did not believe the post was part of a concerted or group action among Duane’s fellow employees at the company, and therefore it was not protected under the NLRA, because it was not an attempt to improve collective terms and conditions of employment. Furthermore, Etchingham said Duane’s post was more like “a tantrum” and “childish ridicule” of his employer rather than speech protected under Section 7 of the NLRA. In other words, this was not an attempt to stimulate discussion but rather an anonymous one-way (and one-time) post. “Here, Duane’s posting on Glassdoor.com was not a social media posting like Facebook or Twitter. Instead, Glassdoor.com is a website used by respondent and prospective employees as a recruiting tool to recruit prospective employees.”37
The NLRB decision is an interesting step in the development of the law as the NLRB tries to apply the NLRA’s protections to employee use of social media. Duane has a pending Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit alleging employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- What ethical and legal obligations do employees have to refrain from badmouthing their employers in a fit of pique, especially on the firm’s own website?
- Should management allow employees to criticize the company without fear of retaliation? Could management benefit from allowing such criticism? Why or why not?
The rules related to social media are evolving, but applicable laws do not generally distinguish between sites or locations in which someone might criticize an employer, so criticism of the boss remains largely unprotected speech. As discussed earlier, employees can go online and post information about wages, hours, and working conditions, and that speech is protected by federal statute. So, although some general complaints against employers are not protected under the First Amendment, they may be protected under the NLRA (because arguably they may be related to terms and conditions of employment). However, most courts agree that statements personally critical of the boss or the company on a basis other than wages and working conditions are not protected. Obviously, there is no protection when employees post false or misleading information on social media in an attempt to harm the company’s reputation or that of management.
Whistleblowing: Risks and Rewards
The act of whistleblowing—going to an official government agency and disclosing an employer’s violation of the law—is different from everyday criticism. In fact, whistleblowing is largely viewed as a public service because it helps society reduce bad workplace behavior. Being a whistleblower is not easy, however, and someone inclined to act as one should expect many hurdles. If a whistleblower’s identity becomes known, his or her revelations may amount to career suicide. Even if they keep their job, whistleblowers often are not promoted, and they may face resentment not only from management but also from rank-and-file workers who fear the loss of their own jobs. Whistleblowers may also be blacklisted, making it difficult for them to get a job at a different firm, and all as a result of doing what is ethical.
Blowing the whistle on your employer is thus a big decision with significant ramifications. However, most employees do not want to cover up unethical or illegal conduct, nor should they. When should employees decide to blow the whistle on their boss or company? Ethicists say it should be done with an appropriate motive—to get the company to comply with the law or to protect potential victims—and not to get revenge on a boss at whom you are angry. Of course, even if an employee has a personal revenge motive, if the company actively is breaking the law, it is still important that the wrongdoing be reported. In any case, knowing when and how to blow the whistle is a challenge for an employee wanting to do the right thing.
The employee should usually try internal reporting channels first, to disclose the problem to management before going public. Sometimes workers mistakenly identify something as wrongdoing that was not wrongdoing after all. Internal reporting gives management a chance to start an investigation and attempt to rectify the situation. The employee who goes to the government should also have some kind of hard evidence that wrongful actions have occurred; the violation should be serious, and blowing the whistle should have some likelihood of stopping the wrongful act.
Under many federal laws, an employer cannot retaliate by firing, demoting, or taking any other adverse action against workers who report injuries, concerns, or other protected activity. One of the first laws with a specific whistleblower protection provision was the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Since passage of that law, Congress has expanded whistleblower authority to protect workers who report violations of more than twenty different federal laws across various topics. (There is no all-purpose whistleblower protection; it must be granted by individual statutes.)
A sample of the specific laws under which whistleblowing employees are protected can be found in the environmental area, where it is in the public interest for employees to report violations of the law to the authorities, which, in turn, helps the average citizen concerned about clean air and water. The Clean Air Act protects any employee reporting air emission violations from area, stationary, and mobile sources from any retaliation for such reporting. The Water Pollution Control Act similarly protects from retaliation any employee who reports alleged violations relating to discharge of pollutants into water.
Without the help of employees who are “on the ground” and see the violations occur, it could be difficult for government regulators to always find the source of pollution. Even when whistleblowers are not acting completely altruistically, their revelations may still be true and worthy of being brought to the public’s attention. Thus, in such situations, the responsible employee becomes a steward of the public interest, and we all should want whistleblowers to come forward. Yet not all whistleblowers are white knights, and not all their firms are evil dragons worthy of being slain.
LINK TO LEARNING
Go to this U.S. Department of Labor website that lists all the laws under which whistleblowers have protection to learn more.