So get this: You're upset about something a co-worker said, so you solicit opinions and talk to other colleagues about it. Next you thing you know, a few days later, you and those colleagues get fired.

If this was the modus operandi for businesses these days, water cooler chatter would be grounds for dismissal at companies across the country. But this conversation is a little different. It didn't occur at the office while they were on the clock; in fact, it didn't even happen at work at all — it happened on Facebook during off-hours. And the subject of the complaint fest? She was among the people posting in the comment thread.

It's that last bit that may have made all the difference this time around — the employer, a New York–based nonprofit, contended that those comments amounted to harassment. What do you think? Here's the original post: "[A co-worker] feels that we don't help our clients enough at HUB. I about had it! My fellow co-workers: how do u feel?"

So the question is, is this truly harassment? Administrative Law Judge Arthur J. Amchan doesn't think so. When one of the fired employees brought a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, it called for a hearing, and Judge Amchan sided with the staffers. He contended that these posts were part of normal discussion about workplace conditions, and that these workers didn't forfeit legal protection of their speech. End result: He ruled that the employer had to re-hire all five of them back.

It's pretty clear that new media and social networks still vex many an employer out there. But typically, the stories revolve around companies banning usage at work — not evaluating online activities during off-hours. While that might be understandable at a "dot com" or a new media agency, is it reasonable for others to monitor their people's personal behavior?

Frankly, I'm torn on this issue. I do think employers have a right (and a responsibility) to protect harassed employees. But eyeballing a staffer's non work-related Facebook account, and using comments from it to fuel their termination, seems like a serious overstepping of bounds here, no?

What's your take on this? Does an employer have a right to step in if it perceives harassment — no matter the venue? Weigh in.

[via TechCrunch, source Inc.]