Should Yelp Have Fired Employee?

There may be a few HR lessons to be learned from the recent media firestorm that’s engulfed Yelp since it fired former employee Talia Ben-Ora after she wrote an open letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman complaining about her low pay.

Ben-Ora, who worked in customer support at Yelp’s Eat24 food-delivery service, said in her letter that the pay she and her co-workers earned simply wasn’t enough to survive in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive regions in the United States. “So here I am, 25-years old, balancing all sorts of debt and trying to pave a life for myself that doesn’t involve crying in the bathtub every week,” she wrote. “Every single one of my co-workers is struggling …. they’re taking side jobs, they’re living at home.”

Shortly after posting the letter on Medium.com, Ben-Ora was fired. She later wrote on Twitter that she was fired because she violated Yelp’s employee code of conduct.

For his part, Stoppelman has denied, via Twitter, that Ben-Ora was fired because of the letter and said he was not personally involved in her termination. He also acknowledged the high cost of living in San Francisco.

When an employee posts an angry diatribe against the company on social media, HR and the CEO need to “take a deep breath,” says employment attorney Erin Dougherty Foley of Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.

“If the conduct was egregious or in some way violated the company’s code of conduct (or other policy), then the company would likely have a defensible reason for making the termination decision,” she says.

In Yelp’s case, there very well may have been other factors involved in the company’s decision to fire Ben-Ora, says Foley. “I get a sense that there’s a back story there.”

However, employers also need to be aware of the risks of firing an employee (particularly with respect to public opinion) in such a public context, even if their reasons for doing so are perfectly valid, says Foley. “Companies should not feel handcuffed by employees engaging in conduct on social media, they just need to ensure that they are considering the conduct both in the context of the risk that it poses to the company (i.e., is another employee being harassed or bullied as a result) or whether the employee is engaging in ‘protected concerted activity’ or just blowing off steam.”

The “concerted protected activity” part can be a bit tricky, as the National Labor Relations Board has ruled in a number of cases that employees were engaging in protected activity when they took to social media to complain about wages and working conditions. “We don’t yet have a lot of clear or consistent direction from the courts or the NLRB on what is, and isn’t, protected activity,” she says.

One of the most important lessons here is that HR needs to ensure that “a robust open-door policy is in place for employees to raise these types of concerns without going to social media,” says Foley. “A real value-added for HR is being the ear to the ground, hearing and addressing these types of concerns before they go to the Internet,” she says. “A culture that fosters this sort of openness will serve the company well in the long run.”