When KTBS meteorologist Rhonda Lee took to Facebook to assertively but politely defend her short haircut when a viewer complained about it, other Facebook users cheered her. The Shreveport, La., news station fired her.
According to a statement from the station, "Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure."
Lee says the cited policy isn't written down and that station managers told her there was no definite rule to point to. The station did, however, publish a redacted version of an email that stated, "When we see complaints from viewers, it's best not to respond at all." The email continues to say the only proper Facebook response is to provide station contact information.
The opening paragraph of that email, however, says it's intended to "offer some guidance" and is "more of a starting point" for a social media policy.
More than 15,000 people have signed an online petition to reinstate Lee, and Facebook users have been leaving comments about Lee on posts about unrelated news stories.
Just how much damage has the station done to itself? Ragan.com asked experts to weigh in.
The legal question
Attorney Molly DiBianca of Young Conway Stargatt & Taylor says there's no legal requirement for an employer to have a written policy for employee conduct, and employers can terminate employee for any reason, particularly in a state with a right-to-work law, as Louisiana has.
"For example, most employers do not have a policy that prohibits employees from embezzling funds from the employer," she says, "but it's a safe bet that an employee who does embezzle money from her employer can be terminated because of it. "
The same thing goes for social media. As long as an employer isn't terminating employment for an illegal reason—activities protected via federal labor laws—it doesn't matter whether it's a rule or a "guideline." The employer can legally discipline that employee.
Lee isn't likely to have much of a legal claim, DiBianca says.
DiBianca adds that, just because an employer can do something doesn't mean it ought to.
"Employers should consider whether it would terminate its best employee for the conduct at issue," she says. "As with most HR decisions, consistency is key."
Jonathan Hemus, director of Insignia Communications, says the lack of controversy or offense in Lee's response to the viewer makes the decision to fire her that much more controversial.
Shel Holtz adds that the station simply seems disingenuous with its reasoning for firing Lee.
"The station shot itself in the foot by claiming the dismissal was over repeated violations of a policy that didn't exist, particularly when the employee's file showed no record of any prior warnings," he says. "Policies need to be documented and communicated. A suggested process conveyed once by email doesn't cut it."
The larger issues
To that issue of communicating social media policies, Hemus says that a single email or meeting simply is no way to inform employees of the online conduct an employer expects.
"If businesses really want staff to understand what their social media policy means in practice, they need to not only brief them, but also to train them," he says. "Ideally, this should be via a short role-play exercise using a social media simulation tool: It's only by getting people to engage with social media in this way that a dry policy takes on real meaning."
Likewise, Robert Holland of Holland Communication Solutions says the policy, as it was presented in the email memo, had no backbone.
"It's like the old joke that God didn't give Moses the '10 suggestions,'" he says. "If you expect employees to adhere to a policy, then the policy shouldn't have any wiggle room and it should be written and distributed, not mentioned in passing at a staff meeting."
He also says informing employees not to interact on Facebook negates the whole purpose of having a Facebook page.
"If KTBS doesn't want to respond to publicly respond to criticism, it should simply have a website with an email address posted on it," he says.