Is it legal to be fired for what you post on Facebook about your workplace? (Joerg Koch/AP)

In some cases, maybe not. The Wall Street Journal published a story Friday that looks at a new front in the legal battle over employees who write complaints about their bosses or workplaces. Recently, increasing numbers of employees who have been fired or disciplined for complaining online have been turning to the National Labor Relations Board to help them get their jobs back or win settlements.

The NLRB enforces a law known as the Wagner Act, which allows workers the right to join together to improve their wages or working conditions and which protects someone speaking on behalf of his or her co-worker. This hardly means you can start profanely venting about your boss on Facebook and get away with it. Simple griping is not protected, after all. So what is? The law says workers should be able to discuss pay and other workplace conditions as a group activity. So it stands to reason that someone could complain about the long hours they have to work this weekend or how their boss dressed them down in a meeting and get away with it, as long as they’re friends with their colleagues on Facebook and the complaint generates some discussion.

What employees can’t do and remain protected, meanwhile, is to merely complain, with no evidence of trying to spur group action to improve working conditions, the Journal states. You can’t make physical or verbal threats against an employer or co-worker. It’s less clear on what kind of name-calling of the boss is permitted, and whether or not using a workplace computer would change your rights. It’s also unclear on what an ideal social-media policy would look like. In fact, the NLRT’s acting general counsel, the Journal states in its rundown, “has yet to see one that can be cited.”

That’s probably because the best such policy isn’t something spelled out in legalese. There are simply too many caveats, too many ways social media could change, too many variations of “scumbag” to consider. Rather, the best policy for leaders is simply to treat employees like adults, rely on managers to use sound judgment, and give employees the freedom to express their opinions up to the point that it truly begins to damage the organization.

Figuring out where to draw that line is what’s hard for so many leaders. It shouldn’t be. If employees truly are engaged in their jobs, one angry person venting about their boss to their Facebook friends may not be worth the cultural damage that could be inflicted by clamping down on the speech of an entire organization. On the other hand, if an employee with 50,000 Twitter followers repeatedly complains about a manager who is clearly treating the staffer fairly, action is probably merited.

As one commenter on the Journal story wrote, we may live in a democracy, but you don’t work in one. Managers have a right to defend the reputations of their organizations and stop public speech by employees that is truly harmful to their organizations. But trying to shoehorn an issue as complex as what people can and can’t say on their Facebook pages into a policy is risky business—and it certainly won’t give employees the impression their organizations respect them to do the right thing. If leaders aren’t careful, such a policy could be worse for the many than the crimes of a few are.

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