facebook.jpgSocial media, including blogging, Twitter, Facebook and the rest, have given people everywhere a chance to make themselves heard and express themselves like never before. It’s a new age of freedom of speech but your employer wants you to shut your cyber mouth.

Things are happening so fast on the Web that companies are both embracing social networking when it comes to promoting their products and services, and simultaneously kicking it to the curb when it comes to average working stiff’s privacy rights. Two recent cases, which I discuss below, involve workers who were using social networking and got a pink slip for their efforts; and it’s just the beginning of a Internet privacy battle that will rage in our nation’s workplaces in the months and years ahead.

We’re literally watching the world change before our eyes and it’s unclear if worker privacy will triumph or die, said Scott Peterson, a labor attorney for Tully Rinckey, a law firm that represents employees. “Because things are changing so quickly it’s becoming difficult for employers and employees to manage expectations of what is and is not allowed,” he explained. “The bigger issue is to what extent do employees have the right to express opinions?”

Before the Internet, you could write in your diary, or complain at a bar to coworkers about your boss, or be a member of a certain club, or contribute to obscure hobby journals, and no one, especially not your managers, would ever have to find out. Today, you tweet your anger at your boss, blog about scrapbooking, or join groups on Facebook, and you just never know who’ll find out. And, if your company asked for such things to be disclosed you might feel compelled to do so just in case your cyber antics get out there.

It’s great that your involved in the social networking revolution, and some employers even want you to use your digital reach to boost their businesses, but the reality is you can get canned for it.

* Marilyn Tagocon, 50, was allegedly fired for refusing to take down her historical fiction blog that she wrote under a pen name from her home in Piscataway, NJ. It was a strange move by her employer because her employer was JPMorgan Chase. Yes, a bank. Why a bank would care that one of its workers was writing about historical fiction is beyond me, but it’s a great example of a company flexing its workers-do-what-I-tell-them muscle in this fast-moving digital age they just don’t get. (I contacted Tagocon’s lawyer but have not heard back yet.)

* In another case, Dawnmarie Souza, an employee for an ambulance company in East Haven, CT, was allegedly fired because she complained about her manager on Facebook to other coworkers. The federal government is fighting the termination claiming she was engaged in protected speech because the law protects employees who talk about work conditions.

In both cases, legal experts have told me employers have a lot of latitude when it comes to terminating or demoting workers for what ever reason, especially non union workers or those you work in at-will states. But the explosion of social media has presented a host of challenges.

Many companies now have blanket policies that you just can’t say anything about your employer, or you have to clear all Internet musings with HR; or they say they reserve the right to take action if they don’t like what you’re doing out there in cyber space. But how will the courts deal with these issues when an employee fights any adverse action?

“The issue is where do you draw the line,” Peterson said about worker privacy.

“I don’t see blanket statements coming down,” he noted about future court decisions. “It will be more of ad hoc decisions.”

That’s a scary notion for employees who want to engage in social media but also want to keep their jobs.

What do you think? Should workers be allowed to keep the cyber conversations going without the fear of job loss? Or should employers have the discretion to fire employees for social media use?

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