When Lindsey Stone-type employees act badly should employers be blamed?

Lindsey Stone’s photograph on her Facebook page disrespecting the solemn military burial ground of Arlington National Cemetery sent shockwaves across the nation. Unfortunately, her former employer, Living Independently Forever, Inc. (LIFE), was caught in the Facebook photograph crossfire. It appears that a lot of the anger that was generated by outraged Americans was also laid at the doorstep of the organization.

This does raise several crucial questions that many employers and employees have to come to terms with. How responsible or even liable are employers for bad conduct that their employees engage in outside of the office? Is it fair to hold any organization, morally liable if an employee like Lindsey Stone decides to engage in outlandish disrespectful and dishonorable actions?

Should an organization like LIFE, or any other employer initiate an employment policy that includes forbidding employees from engaging in conduct that embarrasses their employer? Would that employment policy also include, posting of photographs on Facebook that may harm the organization’s ability to conduct its business or delivery of services.

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Certainly, many Americans feel it is unreasonable to assign any liability for the immature 30-year-old Lindsey Stone’s conduct at Arlington Cemetery to LIFE. This notable non-profit organization has a solid reputation for proving quality services for adults with disabilities in Cape Cod, Mass. In fact, the organization responded to the disturbing behavior by stating in part:

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Living Independently Forever, Inc. (LIFE) Statement

Should Lindsey Stone’s employer be blamed for Facebook photo of her disrespecting Arlington Cemetery Tomb of Unknown Soldiers
“This photograph in no way reflects the opinions or values of the LIFE organization, which holds our nation’s veterans in the highest regard. We are proud to have veterans serving on our staff and board of trustees, and we value their service. The men and women who have selflessly fought and sacrificed their lives to protect the rights and lives of Americans deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. We are acutely aware that this photo has done a disservice to veterans and we are deeply saddened that it was taken and shared in a public medium.”

The organization’s deep, sincere regret expressed in the statement demonstrates clearly that every employer in America needs to have a chat with their employees and examine their employee policies. Unruly conduct on and off the premises of an organization, business or employment location, does have consequences.

Employees may claim that they have 1st Amendment “Freedom of Speech” rights under the U.S. Constitution. However those constitutional rights do not extend entirely to certain types of postings on an employee’s private Facebook page.

The practice of employees who have listed their place of employment on Facebook, and then engage in questionable behavior may through association harm their employer. Many U.S. courts as well as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have issued a variety of opinions which underscore that an employee’s right to post photos, words, or other unflattering portrayals do not offer them protection from being fired.

Therefore, as social media becomes more and more an integral and embedded part of American society, employees like a Lindsey Stone cannot go out and do whatever immature and uncaring disrespectful act that fancies them. In fact, according to Career Builder, a website for job seekers, “New England Patriots cheerleader Caitlin Davis was dismissed from her position, “over controversial pictures that were posted on her Facebook page.”

Proofpoint, an internet security company, established in its 2009 study that approximately eight percent of firms with more than 1,000 employees discharged an employee for engaging in questionable social media postings. That number had doubled from the previous year.

The verdict is in. Lindsey Stone’s dismissal was not only legitimate; she and her coworker did not appear to have a U.S. Constitutional leg to stand on. It is indeed unfortunate, that you cannot legislate respect. But you sure can require it from your employees.

So this is a future warning for employees who feel the notion to engage in behavior that is “prankish” and disrespectful. Your next posting on your Facebook page may list your current occupation as unemployed.

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