Can an employer fire or not hire based on social media comments?

Can employers fire or not hire someone based on comments posted on Facebook, Twitter or other online social networks?  There is no simple answer.

The issue could wind up in court, resulting in lengthy and expensive legal proceedings, and damage to both parties’ reputations.

Conducting Internet searches on current or prospective employees can give rise to claims of discrimination and harassment, and that the employer’s decision was based on unlawful criteria.

Even if the company can articulate legitimate reasons for its decision, there is always a chance that the jury will believe that the results of the Internet search were the employer’s true motivation.

For example, a North Carolina school district was sued after it terminated one of its employees, the latter claiming his position as a “role model” in “the school community” was damaged.  The district countered that the “damage” was caused by the plaintiff’s MySpace page, where he revealed himself as a follower of the Wiccan religion and his wife as a bisexual.

Other cases have been brought based on gender, racial, and religious discrimination.

These cases make it clear that employer review of employee social media comments can open the door to litigation.  Even meritless arguments must be investigated, which takes significant time and expense.  Employers may be better off if they avoid employee social media pages.