WKYT Investigates | Free speech vs. your job in the age of social media

Published: Aug. 3, 2020 at 5:56 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - You may have heard the saying, “What you do on your own time is your own business.” That’s not always the case anymore.

Now with cell phone cameras and social media so prevalent, behavior in the past can quickly impact the present. Including your job.

“When we get out there often times it’s easy to get swept up into the moment,” said Brian Simmons, a human resources senior professional.

Brian Simmons has worked in human resources for 32 years, and now he’s noticing a trend: blurred lines between what an employee does outside of work, and what it means for your job.

“Whether it be a protest or something completely different, those things are in the arena of forming perceptions and judgments,” said Simmons.

Example after example shows it. A New York City woman threatened to call the police on a black man over a dispute about her dog. She was fired from her job the next day. In New Jersey, two men were caught on camera mocking the arrest and death of George Floyd. One of those men faced discipline at work, and the other was fired.

In both instances, no one was on the clock and their companies were not being represented, but their employers still took action.

Many of the videos have gone viral, creating headlines and headaches.

Simmons says social media plays a big role in pressuring companies to take action. And companies have an image to protect.

“The push of social media is changing society as we see it and people are quick to use judgment,” Simmons said. “As we see these images, as we see these statements, a lot of times these things are taken out of context.”

Here in Kentucky, too.

We’ve seen racially charged incidents in public have repercussions in the workplace.

You may have seen the video of a fight at a Lexington Black Lives Matter protest. One man involved was fired after a disputed social media post surfaced.

And a protester who hanged an effigy of Governor Andy Beshear on the capitol grounds was also fired.

Most employers might not like their workers doing things like that, but can they fire someone for it? Or is it protected free speech?

“One thing that is important to note about the First Amendment is that they apply against the government,” law professor Joshua Douglas said. “The government can’t take actions to prohibit someone or punish someone because of their speech.”

Not only that, Kentucky is an employment-at-will state. There are limits, but it means in many cases, your boss can fire you at ay time for any reason.

Simmons suggests you reach out to your boss before going to a protest, think twice before putting yourself in a certain situation and familiarize yourself with employee handbook.

“Those are the types of things that need to take place before going to these protests and need to be considered,” Simmons said. “As much as we’d like to say employment at will isn’t a thing it is.”

And social media has a way of highlighting things that certainly put that to the test sometimes.

Simmons says it’s helpful to understand the social norms of your company and keep a strong line of communications between you and management.

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