Work-related grousing is so common that it's tempting to suspect that the earliest cave drawings are actually complex inside jokes about meetings that ran long.
And in this age of not only social media but super-social media, it's not uncommon for employees to get in trouble over things they post on the Internet. But earlier this month, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint saying that an ambulance service violated the federal National Labor Relations Act by firing an employee for criticizing her supervisor on Facebook.
According to the NLRB's news release, a customer made a complaint about the employee, and she was asked to prepare a report on the matter. She asked for a union representative, but was denied. She went home that day and started making negative comments on Facebook about her supervisor — and she was joined by co-workers.
The crux of the issue as the NLRB explains it is that generally, federal law protects covered employees when they engage in "concerted activity" discussing their employment conditions, even when their union (if they have one) isn't directly involved. The NLRB has a page where it states that this would include, among other things, "2 or more employees discussing pay or other work-related issues with each other."
A former member of the NLRB who spoke to The New York Times frames the issue around the word "concerted," saying that if you just blast your criticism of your supervisor into the universe via Facebook, you might not be protected, but if your co-workers join in and they also criticize your supervisor, you might be more likely to be protected. But does this make sense in the context of Facebook? Do people have to answer you on Facebook in order for you to be discussing your working conditions with them? What if you post it on Facebook and they ask you about it later in person?
It's a very odd social-media twist, indeed. Does this mean it's important to friend at least some of your co-workers if you want to complain about your boss? Does it mean you should friend your most discontented and negative co-workers so they'll join in? Does it mean you should hope that if you hate your boss, your co-workers also hate your boss?
How "concerted" is social media, anyway? It's a strange context for this question to come up, but there's a sense in which it cuts to the absolute heart of something like Facebook: Is it more like a conversation with some give-and-take to it, or is it more like a collection of one-way conduits in which each person gets a fire hose through which to shoot his or her particular grievances and interaction is incidental?