Social Media Policy: Are companies making their policies vague on purpose?

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Social Media can really suck sometimes

Don’t get me wrong, social media has taken over the world in recent years and has advanced so much from just using it to keep in touch with people all over the place to now being able to use it to your advantage. Social media can be used by companies promoting their products, for educational purposes and now, there is even social media outlets solely used for the purpose of finding jobs and building your personal networks. There are even people whose sole form of income comes from social media and the content they produce. 

Well, if it’s so great why is it so difficult?

Social media can be a challenge because everyone has different perceptions of what is deemed ok and not ok, politically correct, or incorrect and so on and so forth. For example, you could be having a great time and hanging out with your friends, doing nothing you perceive as wrong, and boom out of nowhere you’re being fired or facing serious repercussions for something you had no idea was a problem. That’s not to say that in some of these instances, what someone posted was actually wrong and there should have been disciplinary action taken, but in certain instances, the post in question was not problematic at all. 

Sometimes, it’s not what you post but what others posted about you…

In this example, a Chipotle worker was labeled as a racist and fired from the company for simply doing her job. The customers were routinely stealing from the company, so she asked for payment up front, she was then trashed as they filmed her, labeled her racist, and sent it out to the world, which ultimately ruined her. It took her a long time and effort to try to clear her name but that is the world we live in today. People who were spreading that story around had no idea what the actual situation was, until a helpful Twitter user pointed out the history of the video creator’s efforts to dine-and-dash at the restaurant. Chipotle jumped to the same conclusions as everyone else and fired her before a longer investigation.

Other times, it’s what you posted…

In this article, by the Fall River Reporter Kari McRae a Massachusetts teacher was fired for a TikTok she had posted back in September of 2021. In the TikTok video, it is reported that she stated she was going to run for the school board in the upcoming elections so that she can use her position to prevent officials from “pushing their agenda” on others. The supposed agenda in question is that of allowing students to choose their gender identity and to stop critical race theory from being taught in schools. 

This incident in question is a particularly difficult one seeing as not only was she asked to withdrawal from the elections, but she was also outright fired from her normal teaching position. It could be argued that if those voting for the representatives on the school board, did not agree with her political ideals they could have simply not voted for her. 

This begs the question as to whether the school’s social media policy infringes on a teacher’s right to free speech and to run for elections. Nowhere in the article does it mention that she brings her personal talking points or rhetoric into the classroom. The school simply said her social media posts would have a significant negative impact on student learning and they cited her employment as within the probationary period for termination without cause. 

Regardless of your political views, the point of a social media policy, which can be invoked for termination of an employee for violations, should be to outline the guidelines of what is acceptable or not, and why.

This is where social media policy comes into play

Social media policy differs from employer to employer. It is essentially the guidelines of social media while you’re employed by this particular company. It outlines what you can and cannot post as well as if you can engage in social media activities while you’re on the clock. A 2016 article by CNBC states that 28% of employers have fired employees for using social media (non-work related) while on the clock, and 18% of employers have fired employees for something they posted to their personal accounts while not even on the clock.

It is essential when writing a social media policy, that you cover all of the key aspects like what is acceptable to post, what is not acceptable, as well as how they plan to discipline those who do not follow the policy. When writing a company’s social media policy, they have the power and ability to choose what coincides with their company values, however a company needs to balance their stance on issues with first amendment protections provided to employees under the National Labor Relations Act, especially if these are regarding a person’s personal use of social media.

Relating back to Kari McRae, a quick review of the Bourne Public Schools Faculty Handbook shows their vague social media policy:

Was this policy constructed to be vague on purpose? That way should issues arise; they have the power to determine what is acceptable on an as case basis. However this policy does not give examples of what would constitute unacceptable speech to lead to termination. It does however, include two blank statements expecting faculty members to go research the MTA and NEA Code of Ethics, although they could be potentially counting on the fact that most faculty members will fail to do so.

The outcome of social media policy

After analyzing all of these articles and instances of people being fired or reprimanded for what they choose to post on social media, it can be determined that some employers or companies are choosing to keep their social media policy under wraps or particularly vague on purpose. If they choose to keep their policy vague, they have the power to fire employees whenever they see fit and determine that the post in question is a “violation of their policy”. It seems as though this was the case for Kari McRae because in their own Faculty Handbook, their policy is two simple sentences that could be interpreted in any possible way to fit the current narrative. 

So, was Kari McRae fired unjustly?

In 2018, the National Labor Relations Board issued new guidance relating to employee handbook rules. The revised statement states that the following rules which are presumptively lawful: 

Although some of these rules seem clear and straightforward, others do not. For example, “companies may not use the company’s logo” is self-explanatory. However, who determines what are negative or disparaging remarks? Who decides what is a misrepresentation of the companies’ products?

However, it can be argued that McRae did not violate the school’s social media policy seeing how vague the Bourne Public Schools Faculty Handbook is and how vague the statements are about social media requirements. It also listed no consequences of violations of the policy, especially that compliance was a condition of employment. 

In my own personal opinion, I have found it best to keep your personal social media accounts simple and to not get into topics that could easily go one way or another. I think having her withdrawal from the election was a fair enough punishment for her post on social media but as long as she was not forcing those ideals on to her students, she should not have been fired. 

At the end of the day, this is why it is essential for employers to have a clear social media policy so that this type of situation does not come to light and there is no room for interpretation. 

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