What's That You Say? Car Salesman Fired for Facebook Comments

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automotive-social-media-online-reputation-kathi-kruseFile this under: Only in the car business.

You know I talk a lot about automotive Social Media marketing but there’s another side to Social Media that comes into play involving employees. A lot of owners block Social sites from the dealership’s server in an effort to control what’s being said. However, with smart phones and other personal devices, employees bypass the store’s server and communicate with their network, including your customers.

The more advantageous way to incorporate Social sites into your business is to let your employees have access but also give them guidelines on how to behave. Just as the phone and email were revolutionary in their time, Social Media is today. Embrace Social Media for the value it brings you to increase sales AND make every effort to define your policies for employee use.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board decided a case involving a BMW salesman. There were many factors that made this case unique. Most-notably, it was the first “Facebook Firing” and it came from a car dealership. Of course it came from a car dealership! Auto retail operations is filled with litigious situations and many labor laws were constructed on the backs of car dealers and their attorneys.

The salesman in question was terminated by the dealership for Facebook posts. He responded with a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Here’s the story: Another salesperson at the store had allowed a customer’s 13-year-old son to sit behind the wheel following a test drive. The boy apparently hit the gas, ran over his parent’s foot, jumped the wall and drove into a pond. (Like I said…only in the car business). The salesman who brought the suit posted photos of the accident with sarcastic commentary, including: “OOPS” on his Facebook page.

That same day, the salesman also posted mocking comments and photos with co-workers about the fact that his company decided to serve hot dogs, chips and bottled water at a prestigious sales event announcing a new BMW model. A week later, the salesman was fired.

The Board agreed with the Administrative Law Judge, who found after a trial, that the BMW salesperson was fired exclusively, and legally, for posting photos of the embarrassing and potentially dangerous accident at the adjacent Land Rover dealership owned by the same employer; not for the posts concerning the refreshments served at the new model sales event.

However, the three-person NLRB panel differed with the judge regarding a “Courtesy” clause in the BMW dealership employee handbook regarding employee communications. The “Courtesy” rule prohibited employees from being disrespectful or using profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership. They found the language of the rule to be unlawful because employees would reasonably believe that it prohibits any statements of protest or criticism. The Board therefore ordered the BMW dealer to remove the clause from its employee handbook and furnish employees with inserts or new handbooks.

There are two important lessons to be learned here:

1. Regardless of the medium it’s shared on, every employee must understand that when they share photos and comments, those posts reflect back on their own online reputation. From now until eternity, that salesperson’s name will be Googled and the details of this lawsuit will be read by every potential employer. What you share, says a lot about you – online and in real life. Make sure it’s exactly what you want others to know.

2. With the open and connected web, managing a dealership’s culture is more important than business strategy. How your employees view things is very often regurgitated to your customers. How do your employees behave when you’re not looking? The culture at each and every dealership should become the focus in today’s online world. What you say and do, says a lot about you.

There’s a growing backlog of Social Media cases pending before the NLRB and many of the questions about Social Media in the workplace haven’t been answered yet. What this case illustrates clearly though is that if one of your employees publishes something offensive or confidential on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, proceed with caution before taking action.


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  • http://twitter.com/gonzogonzo Frederic Gonzalo

    Excellent post, Kathi. I wonder: did this car dealership have a social media policy in place, or guidelines? Most likely not. You mention in your post that companies ought to give some guidelines, and it my experience this works well. But it’s just a first-step. In many cases, a training is required, even if it’s just one hour, or half-day, to better understand the tools and privacy settings that come with them.
    One thing is for sure: the more companies have solid SM policies in place, share them and train their staff, the easier it will be to fire or take action against wrongful actions when they occur. No matter what industry it takes place in.


    • krusecontrol

      I totally agree, Frederic. They did have a “policy” in place but because the employer didn’t really understand the nature of Social or perhaps was given poor advice, the “Courtesy clause” in their handbook that I refer to, violated the employee’s rights. The NLRB told them to remove the clause. There’s a deeper issue here and it’s this: your business’ culture will be translated on Social networks – pay attention to how employees behave when the boss isn’t around.

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  • jimdougherty

    Great post Kathi! I imagine that there is more of this going on than we realize. The businesses that disclose social content as the rationale for firing are probably in the minority. Because of the risks involved with a firing on those grounds I have always thought that more risk-averse companies use other rationale to fire employees, even if the actual impetus is social malarkey. I wonder if maybe businesses feel more emboldened after the federal court ruled that Facebook Likes aren’t protected speech and are justification for firing: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/08/14/lawyer-vows-to-appeal-runling-that-facebook-like-is-not-free-speech/

    • krusecontrol

      Thanks Jim! I think a lot of business owners are fearful of Social and their employees participation. That fear comes from not being in the space themselves so there’s a lack of understanding how it works, and perhaps they’re in denial about the fact that their business in on Social Media, even if they aren’t. One thing for sure, there’s a whole new profit center for labor attorneys with a knowledge of Social business.

  • http://twitter.com/JCGibbsDC JC Gibbs

    This is a fantastic post and a wake up call for businesses for social media guidelines at least not to threat employees but to create awareness, this sort of advice would help them not only while working for their current company but for the future of their careers and online presence.

    • krusecontrol

      Agreed, JC. Creating awareness is so important! We all have a personal brand to communicate. That salesperson is tarnished forever because he didn’t think about the consequences of his comments. He was probably just trying to be funny but it’s truly a case of “think before you hit send”.

  • http://www.douglaserice.com/ Douglas E Rice

    It’s never cool to be witty at someone else’s expense. Besides, you never make fun of CUSTOMERS on Facebook (and you really shouldn’t even do it at the water cooler). Guy deserves to get canned, IMO. If I were him, I’d be feeling ashamed of myself right now…not indignant.

    • krusecontrol

      Yep, Doug, it certainly says a lot about who the guy is. Thanks for stopping by my blog :-)

  • Charles Shamblee III

    People have to evolve faster than ever… maybe it’s the word “social” that creates the attitude that it may not be important; maybe we should call it “society” or “community” media, so that people will take it seriously. I also believe we should add the word “marketplace” after media… because the community can, will and does influence commerce.

    • krusecontrol

      I like your idea Charles…Community Media. It takes people to make commerce and communities have a power to influence more of it. Awesome dude!

  • Bruce Partridge

    You can’t help stupidity.
    However, Culture and accountability is what is needed in any business particuly a car dealership. Couching for all staff in what is morally and professionally acceptable should be the true out come of this case.

  • millerjack

    Social medias are powerful influential tools so the management to properly train the employees and to warn them about do’s and don’t’s to avoid bitter thins happen in future. http://Philadelphia.CarAccidentLawyer.net