Human Resources Managers know the drill when they want to terminate an employee. They bring the individual into a private room, tell him he is terminated, cite a couple of reasons for the termination decision, maybe give him a termination letter, and escort him out of the workplace. Thereafter, the termination decision and reasons for it are typically only shared with those in management with a legitimate “need to know.”
But as they say, “everything is bigger in Texas,” including apparently, the way one announces an employee’s termination. And in “BIg D” they have taken it to a new gunslinging level.
Dallas, Texas Police Chief David O. Brown routinely announces the terminations of his law enforcement officers via his Twitter account, @DPDChief, to his 7,000 plus “followers.” Limited by Twitter’s 140 characters, he then posts lengthier explanations for the termination on Facebook for several thousand “friends.”
One recent example:
“I have terminated ######### for public intoxication, damaging a person’s property, and making offensive contact with a person.”
(I omitted the name – blame the lawyer in me).
Part of me likes the boldness of the strategy, and the stated goals of ensuring government accountability and transparency. It also sends a strong message to other employees not to engage in the same conduct. And the Dallas Police Department is doing some very creative things utilizing social media as a law enforcement strategy to catch bad guys.
But is it a sound personnel practice? Let’s see…
Humiliating the employee to thousands of strangers? Check. Inviting a potential defamation lawsuit? Check. Locking in the employer’s position in future litigation in 140 characters or less? Check. Giving the City’s lawyers nightmares? Check. (Of course, many people would say giving lawyers nightmares is not necessarily a bad thing).
I would assume the Chief vets his Twitter posts with his legal counsel before their mass distribution. But as anyone who uses Twitter knows, typos occur, mistakes can be made, and words can be misinterpreted. And in employment lawsuits, words matter.
Chief Brown found out the dangers of Twitter recently:
Today I terminated Officer Edgar Garcia for being involved in a disturbance resulting in his arrest for assault Family Violence.
Correction: the officer terminated was Officer Edgar Garcia Martinez
I hope the Police Department doesn’t employ an “Officer Edgar Garcia.”
From a purely legal perspective, the risks of such a practice seem to greatly outweigh any potential benefits. Many times I have defended employers in lawsuits where it was clear the employee pursued litigation simply because he/she felt “humiliated” in how the termination was handled. The employee was angry, feeling either the termination meeting was unduly harsh, or embarrassed by being escorted off the premises in full view of co-workers.
Now imagine the employee’s motivation to sue after having his termination and the reasons for it publicly aired to thousands of people. Oh, and the employer still needs that little thing called “evidence” to back up the assertions in the tweet.
As any cowboy will tell you, “when you mess with the bull, you sometimes get the horns.” Save yourself a legal goring – don’t post terminations or the reasons for them on social media sites.
Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202