The recent announcement by the National Labor Relations Board to get involved in the “Facebook firing” case stirred up quite a controversy across the Web last week.

In case you missed it, the NLRB filed a complaint against a Connecticut company for firing an employee over postings she made on Facebook. The unprecedented move by the NLRB will no doubt reignite public debate about the confluence of freedom of speech, expectations of privacy, and employer policies concerning social media.

The move by the NLRB raises the question: Is Facebook the new water cooler?

The Incident

Before we get into the water cooler questions, here is a basic rundown of how we got here. In December 2009, American Medical Response of Connecticut terminated Dawnmarie Souza, an emergency medical technician, for a variety of actions that included violating company policy concerning the use of social media.

According to a press release by the NLRB, Souza posted vulgar and disparaging comments about her boss on her Facebook page following a dispute over a customer complaint. The NLRB contends that these postings constitute “protected concerted activity” under the National Labor Relations Act. An administrative hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 25, 2011.    

Facebook vs. The Water Cooler

Venting is a natural part of life and we all do it. Sometimes frustrations build to the point where we just need to get it out of our head, and many psychologists would argue that holding it in is never a good thing. However, letting it out can be even more harmful than bottling it up depending on how you do it.

Although the results of this case will have tremendous impact on social media and the workplace, my concern is more about the personal accountability aspect. Knowing what we do about the viral nature of the Web, can we really view Facebook in the same way we view the traditional “water cooler” conversation?

The Water Cooler: Generally speaking, “water cooler discussions" typically occur within the confines of the work environment and are in-person conversations directed toward a specific individual or audience. 

In other words, you choose your audience, engage them directly and have the conversation. Sure, those padded cube walls will likely do little to muffle your voice and there is always the chance someone may overhear you. However, once the conversation ends, any retelling is purely hearsay and open to dispute. Anyone who ever played the telephone game as a kid knows how quickly stories evolve through the oral tradition. As my political friends would say, you have plausible deniability.

Facebook: Something we all know to be true is that what happens in cyber space, stays in cyber space… indefinitely. Unlike the comfort this mantra may give to those of us who have spent time in Las Vegas, it has quite the opposite effect when it comes to the World Wide Web.

To make matters worse, digital conversations are not necessarily personal or targeted in the way our “water cooler” conversations are. Once you post a comment or tweet your thoughts, those statements are tagged to you and will be viewed as coming directly from you--they are your words and come from your digital mouthpiece. 

With nearly 500 million users on Facebook and more than 100 million on Twitter,  the potential audience for your remarks is almost endless, which means the potential harm is almost limitless. What may feel like personal venting is in fact public broadcasting.

Personal Accountability and Civility in the Workplace

When it comes to the Souza case, my concern is less about the law, and more about personal accountability and civility in the workplace. 

I have always encouraged clients to deal with interpersonal disputes head on and include only those relevant to the situation. Although I don’t know all of the details of this case, one thing I do know is that publicly airing personal disputes (work or otherwise) in a profane and vulgar manner before they have been dealt with privately is classless and cowardly.

Airing disputes over social media only serves to exacerbate the problem and often results in creating a contentious and even hostile work environment. There are always two sides to every story, but maturity dictates taking the higher road if you truly want resolution.

Regardless of how the case is decided, we certainly can’t legislate against stupidity, but we can encourage sensibility. So, I leave you with two questions:

1) Are we encouraging reckless social media rants as a way to deal with workplace disputes?

2) Is Facebook really the new water cooler? Should our public rants be protected from consequence?

Feel free to post a comment or visit my blog, as I’ll be following this case over the coming months.


Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified professional coach who holds a PhD in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is founder of the consulting firm HCI and author of the new book The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy.