Many employees mistakenly believe that they have unrestricted freedom about how they conduct themselves when they are not at work. Increasingly, this view is being challenged, particularly as technology gives some individuals a forum to publicly criticize their employer and co-workers.
In an unreported arbitration decision, Government of Alberta and Alberta Union of Provincial Employees re: Grievance of R (Contents of Blog), a collective agreement arbitration panel confirmed the dismissal of an employee who repeatedly criticized co-workers on her personal blog.
Following a stressful family situation, an Alberta government employee was advised by her therapist that there would be some value in writing down her thoughts. As a result, she began to blog, a way of recording individual thoughts onto an area of the internet accessible to the public. While initially focused on the benefits of her new hobby of running, the blog posts soon included references to her workplace and co-workers.
Employed in an extremely sensitive area of the provincial government, the employee (whose name is not included in the decision) listed her name on the blog and advised of where she lived, and the fact that she worked for the Alberta government. Some attempts were made in the blog postings to mask references of individuals, but numerous postings were easily identifiable references to her co-workers.
In a posting entitled “SNAFU,” the employee said “I work in a lunatic asylum.” This flew in the face of the fact that the workplace was involved in handling sensitive files, and key values of the employer included confidentiality and substantial discretion. The department also had a commitment for respect, co-operation and teamwork.
Specific comments about co-workers in other postings included the following: “She’s never missed a coffee a break,” “He is so cheap it’s scary,” and “She is also well-known for her friends in high places.”
Repeated references to workplace events in further postings included references to the office being populated by “imbeciles and idiot savants.” Specific complaints about workplace activity, such as the denial of an expense reimbursement, were also referenced in the blog.
Upon learning of the blog postings, management conducted an investigation that resulted in the employee being brought into a meeting with a union representative present.
Upon being provided with printouts of blog entries, the employee was combative, alleging that she had done nothing wrong and that she was merely exercising her right to free expression. Indeed, not acknowledging the harm done by her actions, the employee claimed her intent was humorous and nothing was offensive, particularly given the fact that individual names had not been used.
The employer proceeded to terminate the employee for cause, based on the assertion that she had damaged the employment relationship. The employer also noted the potential damage to the employer’s reputation.
Following a lengthy arbitration hearing, the arbitration board upheld the termination and dismissed the employee’s grievance. The Board said that while the employee had a right to create a personal blog and could express her opinion, publicly displaying those opinions can have consequences for the employment relationship.
The employee’s conduct went well beyond permissible activity as it contained contempt for managers, ridicule of co-workers and comments that denigrated the workplace. No steps had been taken to prevent access for members of the public, and the employee appeared to enjoy the opportunity to express concerns to a wider audience.
The Board had particular concerns about the viability of the employment relationship given the criticism of co-workers on the blog postings. The public attacks on at least seven identifiable co-workers that the employee had to interact with on daily basis was of grave concern. Nothing suggested that any of this was provoked, and the pattern of postings did not indicate that it was a momentary lack of judgment. The blog comments were, said the Board, “inherently destructive to workplace relationships and inimical to the normal expectation of respect and dignity” to which workers are entitled.
This decision is one of the first that deals with blogs and the potential dismissal of an employee for their blog activity. The result emphasizes the dangers to employees who decide to publicly discuss, by way of the internet, their workplace and colleagues. The right of employees to free speech is hardly unfettered and, just as would be the case if somebody was speaking publicly, comments in a blog about the workplace or co-workers may be grounds for termination with cause.