Social Media—Still Uncharted Waters

In late January, Applebee’s terminated a server who posted a photograph of a customer’s receipt to social news aggregator Reddit. Controversy stemming from the firing continues to dog the national restaurant chain.

The server was fired after the image went viral on the internet, and the customer—whose identity also came to public attention—complained to Applebee’s. AOL Jobs summarized the situation:

It was just a scribble on an Applebee’s receipt, but it’s spiraled into a public relations catastrophe via Facebook, with outraged comments and online petitions directed against the restaurant chain. Last week, Applebee’s waitress Chelsea Welch took a photo of a receipt on which a diner had scratched out the automatic 18 percent gratuity (added to tables of eight or more) and wrote in its place: “I Give God 10 percent Why Do You Get 18.”

The blog Consumerist interviewed Welch, who explained that she assumed the photo of the receipt left the customer anonymous because the signature seemed illegible. But the large volume of online attention led to an unexpected consequence: “sleuths began trying to identify the self-described ‘pastor’ on the receipt.” They succeeded; the pastor was apologetic when interviewed by The Smoking Gun.

This story comes at a time of change for workplace social media. As the New York Times reported in January:

As Facebook and Twitter become as central to workplace conversation as the company cafeteria, federal regulators are ordering employers to scale back policies that limit what workers can say online.

Employers often seek to discourage comments that paint them in a negative light. [….] But in a series of recent rulings and advisories, labor regulators have declared many such blanket restrictions illegal. The National Labor Relations Board 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.

The Applebee’s receipt story grew far beyond its social media origins, reaching (for example) a blog at The Washington Post, and costing the server her job. Sadly, her employment was not only tenuous—its conditions were harsh, demanding, and poorly compensated. We would argue that the real story here is Welch’s work conditions, which she detailed to Consumerist:

“We make $3.50 an hour. Most of my paychecks are less than pocket change because I have to pay taxes on the tips I make,” she explains. “After sharing my tips with hosts, bussers, and bartenders, I make less than $9/hr on average, before taxes.

In her job, Chelsea says she skipped bathroom breaks when things got busy, went hungry when she had to work several tables at a time, would work until 1:30 a.mIre, burnt, dirty, and blistered on a good day. And after all that, I can be fired for ’embarrassing’ someone who directly insults their server on religious grounds.”

Determining what is the “appropriate” use of social media in the workplace can be confusing. And, as we are beginning to see more frequently, the use of social media can result in the termination of employment. If you have any questions about this complex and evolving topic, please contact The Harman Firm today.