In 2015, fast food chain Chipotle fired an employee, James Kennedy, shortly after he posted a tweet criticizing the company’s pay in response to a customer who thanked Chipotle for free food.

Kennedy deleted the tweet when confronted by a supervisor, who informed him that the tweet violated the company’s social media policy, which prohibited employees from posting disparaging and false claims online.

Kennedy was fired when he later started a petition related to employee breaks.

In March, an NLRB judge, Susan Flynn, ruled that Kennedy’s firing violated labor laws and that his tweet was considered protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act, which allows employees to freely discuss their working conditions. 

This month, much of Flynn’s ruling was upheld on appeal. This means the Chipotle social media policy that was in effect at the time was illegal because it could be used to prevent protected speech.

The NLRB has been addressing social media issues like those in the Kennedy case for years now, and has been warning employers about social media policies that run afoul of the law.

But the fact that large employers like Chipotle are still having conflicts with employees over their social media use demonstrates the fact that corporate social media policies are still a thorny matter.

A better approach

Even so, companies like L’Oreal are using social media to promote positive engagement with employees, providing evidence that with the right strategy and active support, it’s possible to turn employees into advocates on social media.

The benefits of this can be significant and range from increased employee morale to more effective recruitment.  

The NLRB has also made it clear that social media policies can be used to restrict some employee criticisms that aren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Given that 40% of employees use social media to criticize their workplace and one in five uses it to criticize a superior, monitoring and addressing all employee social activity is going to be difficult, and doing so without risking a violation of employee rights is in some cases going to be all but impossible.

The better, more realistic approach: Focus on developing a compelling employee value proposition and understanding what motivates positive employee sharing on social media

While this is more easily said than done, particularly for large companies whose employee ranks don’t consist primarily of highly-paid professionals, employee social engagement is arguably as worthwhile an investment as consumer social engagement.