Fairfield learns a bad social media policy is worse than no policy at all

By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN
Posted Sept. 13, 2013, at 6:21 p.m.

A decade or two ago in the midst of a very nasty argument with a former supervisor, I seem to recall threatening to quit my job and it’s possible I called him a bad name — to his face, of course.

In that particular instance it was determined that I was right and he indeed was an ass. I was able to keep my job and the story he had tried to reassign.

Another time, during a heated disagreement between me and one of the best editors the BDN ever had, I realized that as I was shouting at him I was wielding a knife.

I had brought it to the office to peel an apple. He was being unreasonable as I was leaving on a Friday night, but truly I meant him no harm. The knife just happened to be in my hand as I began to gesture my feelings about his last-minute demands.

Interestingly, though the entire newsroom was watching and listening to our “debate,” not one person seemed to notice or care that I was flailing a knife around.

When I realized it, I cracked up. The editor, whose identity I shall protect always, grumbled in his special way and went back to editing my masterpiece.

A good newsroom is a wide-open, busy and passionate place.

Chances are those of us who ever worked in one have all been called a few choice names by our co-workers.

But let me state for the record, I never once called a co-worker a “Bobblehead.”

A Bobblehead, for the unlearned, is a figurine with a disproportionately large head mounted on a spring that bobs up and down.

That’s apparently what Susan Varney, a part-time librarian at the Lawrence Public Library in Fairfield, called her co-workers, and she was fired.

I’m thinking my career would not have survived the knife-wielding episode if I worked there.

There is one critical difference between the workplace squabbles and spats of yore and the one Varney found herself in.

Facebook.

That’s right, Varney called her co-workers Bobbleheads in a Facebook post. According to media reports she also posted about being treated disrespectfully and complained that her hours were cut.

The town of Fairfield didn’t have a social media policy for their employees at the time, but they were drafting one just when Varney’s posts appeared and town officials determined that those posts were definitely in violation of their yet-to-be-adopted policy.

So, she was terminated.

Varney told reporters that her termination letter stated, “Your public comments not only create hostile working conditions with fellow employees, but your comments harm the reputation of the Lawrence Public Library.”

Come to find out, the policy, which was subsequently adopted, prohibited town employees, whether on the clock or not, from cursing, undermining the town’s image, using irresponsible speech or sexually explicit language on social media sites.

Violations are punishable by possible termination, the policy stated.

But there is more. The policy required any town employee to tell on any other employee they witnessed violating the policy.

Of course neither “irresponsible speech” nor “sexually explicit language” were defined, so workers would have to guess whether those lines were crossed.

Before they adopted it, the Fairfield Town Council had the town’s attorney take a gander at it and he had no problem with it, according to one councilor at a meeting earlier this week.

Yikes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine stepped in, and wrote a letter to the town suggesting they take a second look at their new policy, as it may well be a violation of First Amendment rights.

The town council rightfully voted to suspend its policy until it can get a closer look by another lawyer.

Whether Varney will get her job back is yet to be determined.

The combination of the Bobblehead comment and the extraordinary vagueness of the council’s policy all makes the story seem a bit silly, but it highlights the ever-evolving and complicated social media world in which we all live and work.

We used to go home from work at night, leaving our co-workers behind for the company of friends and family.

Now our co-workers, friends and family members are all on the same page — our Facebook page — and opportunities for gaffes and mishaps abound.

The boundaries in our lives are fading. Workplace quarrels and bad decisions can linger online in perpetuity.

I spoke not long ago to that now-retired editor I argued with all those years ago. He didn’t even remember the knife incident.

But I’m guessing the employees of the town of Fairfield won’t forget that they were called Bobbleheads on Facebook.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/09/13/living/fairfield-learns-a-bad-social-media-policy-is-worse-than-no-policy-at-all/ printed on December 28, 2014