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When to Fire an Employee at the Center of a Social Media Scandal

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

While going viral can be a boon for business, it can also lead to nightmarish PR disasters. Take for example the recent United Airlines scandal where a passenger was dragged off the plane. The incident made national news headlines for weeks and likely cost United quite a bit of business. Unfortunately, there was no scapegoat that United could point at to blame. But clearly, when an employee's on-duty conduct causes a public scandal, an employer will be justified in issuing an immediate termination.

When a single employee, or group of employees, end up going viral for all the wrong reasons, even if it involves off-duty conduct, not even remotely related to their job, an employer may need to sever ties to keep the company's reputation intact. In these scenarios, businesses need to keep their thumb on the PR pulse, but also have their finger on the trigger at the same time.

Not All Publicity is Good Publicity

Despite the age old adage of all publicity being good publicity, any business that's ever seen a slump due to a public scandal knows this doesn't actually hold true. Also, if a business must devote personnel and time to damage control, those are resources not being devoted to making money.

Unfortunately, when an employee is at the center of a scandal, employers need to act quickly or else the business could end up the subject of social media scorn. One CEO reported that the Monday after an employee's ill-gotten fifteen minutes of social media fame, he had over 100 messages from angry members of the public.

Code of Conduct

Luckily for bosses put in that position, most employment in the US is considered at-will employment. This means that an employer can terminate an employee at anytime, so long as the termination is not illegal (i.e. discriminatory or retaliatory). In situations where an employee's off-duty conduct has caused public outrage and scandal, an employer will usually be justified in terminating the employee, particularly if the employer is being harassed or damaged as a result of the outrage.

If the employer has a clear code of conduct, or policies regarding employees not causing the business reputational harm, these types of terminations can be "for cause." A "for cause" termination will generally disqualify a fired employee from unemployment benefits, severance, and even potentially employer provided retirement plans.

Alternatively, employers subject to unionized employees, or those that may not believe termination of the offending employee is in their best interest, may want to consider suspension instead, along with public censure or reprimand.

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