Larry Johnson: A Twitter Termination

Employers are struggling to develop effective social-media policies. And for good reason–it can be hard to draft a policy that is intended to address issues that are unfamiliar and that arise from technology that many employers don’t quite understand.  Which may explain why some employers have been making news headlines with their Facebook and Twitter policies. twitter-art

One of the reasons that employers implement (and should implement) social-media policies is to help mitigate the risk of liability.  When given an unrestricted forum in which to “express” oneself, people often write things that they shouldn’t.  The anonymity of the Internet makes this risk all the more real because things we would never say to another person in conversation become much easier to “say” online. The fact that our online expression comes in the form of the written word further exacerbates the potential problem because what we write online is as permanent as permanent can be.

This “perfect storm” of potential liability came to fruition with the postings of NFL player, Larry Johnson, who, at the time, played for the K.C. Chiefs.  First, Johnson took on Chiefs Head Coach Haley, tweeting about what he perceived to be Haley’s lack of credentials.  If there’s one thing we should know by now about social media, it’s that tweeting bad things about your boss is generally a bad idea.

But, for Johnson, it got worse.  One of his followers engaged Johnson in a series of tweets, heckling him about his comments. The heckler apparently was effective–getting Johnson so agitated that he tweeted back with a gay slur.  As a result, he was suspended and fined $213,000, the amount he would have been paid had he not been sidelined for his inappropriate conduct. 

Johnson was released from his contract with the Chiefs on November 9, making him one of the first professional athletes to be fired for his Twitter activity.  He was later picked up by the Bengals.

The big-picture lesson here is that employers must consider whether they need a social-media policy.  But the real take-away is this: if you have employees who are in the public eye (for whatever reason), they may need to be subject to stricter or at least more specific rules for their social-media activity.  The larger the audience, the greater the potential harm when an employee missteps and conducts himself in a way that does not reflect the organization’s views or culture. 

Hat tip to Rob Radcliff, whose Texas blawg, Smooth Transitions, made my list of 2009 Top 100 employment law blogs.

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