thumbdown.jpgMost of the career advice out there cautions employees from saying anything negative about their managers or company out in cyber space. But there are times trashing your boss on Facebook or Twitter is OK.

For the past few years I’ve been writing about how the government was pushing back on employers who fire employees for saying bad things about them online. A story I wrote for TheAtlantic.com in 2010 looked at how the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency that defends employee-organizing rights, was beginning to step up and take complaints from workers who felt they were fired unjustly.

The NLRB felt companies were beginning to violate a long-existing provision of the National Labor Relations Act that provides protections to employees who get together and complain about a host of workplace issues - everything from conditions to benefits. Just because the discussions occur in cyber space doesn’t make a bit of difference, Jonathan Kreisberg, the NLRB’s Regional Director in Connecticut, told me then.

Well, it looks like the agency has solidified it’s standing on this topic.

A story today in the New York Times written by Steven Greenhouse looks at a bunch of recent NLRB ruling and advisories saying that “blanket restrictions” by employers when it comes to cyber speech are illegal and that the agency

says workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook.

In addition to ordering the reinstatement of various workers fired for their posts on social networks, the agency has pushed companies nationwide, including giants like General Motors, Target and Costco, to rewrite their social media rules.

“Many view social media as the new water cooler,” said Mark G. Pearce, the board’s chairman, noting that federal law has long protected the right of employees to discuss work-related matters. “All we’re doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology.”

That doesn’t mean you can get out your cyber megaphone and start complaining about everything that goes on at work. You can’t just trash your boss because she or he made you take on an assignment you didn’t like, or you’re angry that your manager didn’t spring for booze at the holiday party.

What the NLRB is protecting here is an employees right to get together with other workers, whether at the water cooler or on Twitter, and try and improve working conditions.

So don’t be a dummy, stay away from your smartphone if you want to blow off steam and complain about work.

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