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Facebook post costs waitress her job

Online gripe is like standing on a corner with a sign, lawyer says.

Eric Frazier
efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

Ashley Johnson had a good job making good money as a waitress at Brixx Pizza on Sixth Street in uptown Charlotte.

But that changed about a week ago, when a couple came in for lunch and stayed for three hours - forcing her to work an hour past her quitting time.

And they left her a tip she thought was pretty measly - $5.

Johnson did what most folks who need a good rant do nowadays. When she got home, she went on Facebook. "Thanks for eating at Brixx," she wrote, "you cheap piece of ---- camper."

And like a growing number of workers, she found out the hard way that what you say on social networks can be used against you, particularly if you're in a position of public trust or public service.

The managers at Brixx called her in a day or two later, she says. They showed her a copy of her Facebook comments and told her she was being fired for violating company policy against speaking disparagingly about customers. A Brixx official said she also violated a second policy against casting the restaurant in a negative light on social networks.

"We definitely care what people say about our customers," said Jeff Van Dyke, one of the partners who run the restaurant.

Johnson, 22, says she apologized to Brixx for using bad judgment. "It was my own fault," she said. "I did write the message. But I had no idea that something that, to me is very small, could result in my losing my job."

She's not the first Facebook user to get in trouble with the boss over inappropriate comments or pictures on their pages. And as people grow increasingly comfortable sharing their pictures and thoughts - vulgar, intemperate or otherwise - she surely won't be the last to anger her employer.

Social networks are exploding in popularity, with almost half of all Americans 12 or older maintaining a profile on at least one site, according to a recent Edison Research study.

And as more people go on the sites, more are crossing boundaries their employers don't want crossed.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for instance, suspended a Thomasboro Elementary teacher in 2008 after learning that her Facebook page listed "teaching chitlins in the ghetto" as one of her activities. Four others were disciplined for posts involving bad judgment and poor taste.

The city of Charlotte's recently adopted policy warns employees to "exercise sound judgment and discretion" on their personal sites "to ensure a distinct separation between personal and organizational views."

Inappropriate use, the policy notes, "may be grounds for disciplinary action."

Such social networking dust-ups are becoming more and more common, said Megan Ruwe, a Minnesota attorney who counsels employers on handling workers and social networks.

While the First Amendment bars government from infringing on citizens' freedom of speech, she said, it typically doesn't stop private employers from limiting their employees' speech. She advises companies to set policies to make their expectations clear.

If you say something on social networks that puts your employer in a negative light, she said, "that's not very different than an employee standing on a corner and holding a sign or screaming it. It's public, and it's out there for the world to see. Individuals can forget that it is a very public forum."

That's because many, like Ashley, get lulled into a false sense of security, thinking only their friends can see or read what they're posting. They forget, however, that others might also be able to see it, depending on their privacy settings.

And there's always the chance a friend might copy the material and pass it to others outside the circle.

Johnson said she has about 100 Facebook friends, most of whom are people she met in high school or in college or whom she worked with. She said she doesn't know who told Brixx about her online rant but figures one of her Facebook friends must have done it because her page is otherwise private, and she doesn't add people to her network if she doesn't know them.

Van Dyke said he also wasn't sure how her comments came to Brixx' attention. "It's just like high school students posting stuff on their social networking sites and thinking it's not going to get back to their parents," he said. "But somehow, it does."

Ruwe, the employment lawyer, said people tend to think that because their "Facebook friends" are people they know, that they are talking to a friendly audience.

But in a case like Johnson's, "The lesson to learn is you don't know who you'll offend - even if they are your friend."

Johnson, a UNC Charlotte student, is looking for another job and vowing to be more careful online.

"I lost my job because of a Facebook status," she said. "Even a week later, that's still a lot to get your mind around."

Eric Frazier: Reach him at (704) 358-5145, at @ericfraz on Twitter or on Blogger at http://atcharlotte.blogspot.com.
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