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Chipotle and Your Social Media Policy

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As if Chipotle didn’t have enough problems, a judge has recently issued a ruling against the burrito company that every organization should be aware of.

Like Chipotle, your organization may have a social media policy that bars employees from making “disparaging, false” statements about the company.  Chipotle’s intended policy to protect their public image from unflattering social media posts by their employees.

The issue started when a customer tweeted:

“Free chipotle is the best thanks,”  

in response to a free burrito promotion.

An employee from one of the Chipotle restaurants responded with a tweet that said:

“@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members make only $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?”

The employee deleted the tweet after a manager advised him that it violated the company’s social media policy prohibiting “disparaging, false” statements about the company.

Just two weeks later, the employee was trying to drum up support for a petition about work breaks at Chipotle. A manager got wind of the petition and asked him to stop circulating it. Things got heated, with the employee raising his voice at the manager, and she asked him to leave.  He was subsequently fired.

The employee’s case was taken up by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and brought before a judge. 

In a March ruling, Judge Susan A. Flynn ruled that Chipotle violated the National Labor Relations Act by enforcing an illegal social media policy and directing Mr. Kennedy to stop circulating the petition.

In addition to supporting the employee’s right to circulate a petition, the judge ruled that, “An employer may not prohibit employee postings that are merely false or misleading,” the judge wrote elsewhere in her ruling. “Rather, in order to lose the Act’s protection, more than a false or misleading statement by the employee is required; it must be shown that the employee had a malicious motive.”

The NLRB has consistently ruled against employers that have tried to prohibit social media postings about working conditions, labor policy and treatment of employees.  The NLRB has stated that these types of postings ARE PROTECTED in many situations.   

The NLRB has ruled that it is generally illegal to adopt broad social media policies such as bans on “disrespectful” comments or posts that criticize the employer — if those policies discourage workers from exercising their right to communicate with one another with the aim of improving wages, benefits or working conditions.

In the Chipotle case, they were required to rehire the employee and pay back wages.  The employee had already found new employment and agreed to take the back wages payment in food vouchers.   This was a fortunate but still costly outcome for the company and another hit on their public perception.  

The overall message that compliance and risk officers need to be aware of is that corporations should avoid overly “broad” policies that may inhibit employee rights.  It serves as a warning to other organizations regarding their social media oversight.