Can public criticism of an employer lead to dismissal?

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Can public criticism of an employer lead to dismissal?
Health care workers are free to publicly criticize their employer, but they could be risking their job by doing so.

In the days and weeks following the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who traveled to West Africa and contracted Ebola, the Dallas hospital that first treated him was roundly criticized. Health care workers need only look at their Facebook or Twitter feed to find posts laying into Texas Presbyterian Hospital, lambasting the health care facility for not doing more to contain the virus and errantly sending the Liberian man home when he should have been quarantined. The fault-finding has come not only from the average consumer, but from physicians and nurses as well.

The extent of the criticism, however, has left some wondering not so much if the opprobrium is justified, but if it should be advertised to the degree that it is in today's hyperconnected world. According to Carolyn Buppert, a health care law attorney and nurse practitioner, individuals who are in the health care industry may be risking their job by doing so.

In an opinion piece for Medscape, Buppert noted both the pros and cons that come with airing one's grievances regarding a place of employment, referencing a Texas Presbyterian health care employee, Brianna Aguirre, who spoke with the "Today" show about the Ebola incident. Her comments came off to some as overly harsh, to the point of potentially putting her job on the line if her superiors believe them to be a liability.

At their core, Buppert emphasized Aguirre's comments were perfectly within her right as an American citizen.

"Such rights are guaranteed by the US Constitution," Buppert wrote. "She exhibited considerable bravery in risking her job to bring the hospital's deficiencies to light."

She added that because nurses are already highly regarded by Americans - as evidenced in a poll performed by Gallup - her comments likely carry significant heft with the average consumer.

Employers can fire workers for public comments
There's no denying, however, that she is putting her job at risk by saying the things she did, Buppert stressed.

"Most likely, it will be determined that the Texas whistleblower law does not protect her," said Buppert. "The hospital wasn't doing anything illegal. That hospital was in the unfortunate position of being the first in the country to be required to diagnose Ebola and care for a patient with Ebola hemorrhagic fever. It wasn't only the hospital that fumbled around trying to decide what to do; the governmental agencies were doing the same."

This may explain why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the last month or so has issued several reports on what actions it's taking to address Ebola and how health care workers are to handle the situation if there's ever an outbreak. The CDC recently ordered nearly $3 million in personal protective equipment for workers to use and also to help resupply the Strategic National Stockpile for hospitals treating Ebola patients.

Buppert noted that instead of going public, Aguirre should have kept her criticism private and working within the organization. Doing this would not only protect her job interests but might also enable hospital officials determine what went wrong and how to prevent similar incidents from taking place.

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