Near the end of her workday in August, Michelle Serna got a message from human resources asking her if she had “a second to chat.” She had received a raise the week prior, so Serna wasn’t worried about the impromptu Zoom call. When she joined the call, her boss told her that the company sent a TikTok of Serna’s in which viewers could hear her boss speaking in a meeting.
“I was like, ‘What the fuck?’” Serna told the Daily Dot, remembering the meeting. She wasn’t even sure what TikTok they were referring to.
She was immediately fired from her California-based tech job in telemedicine. Her boss said that her video displayed “gross negligence.”
“They basically said ‘California is an at-will state,’” Serna said. “‘We’ve lost complete trust in you.’”
At-will employment means employees can be fired for any reason at any time—with the exception of prohibited reasons, like one’s race, gender, national origin, religion, age, or disability. And employment is “at will” in all U.S. states except Montana.
Serna was bewildered and in shock. She apologized, and before hanging up the call, her boss told her she needed to delete the TikTok in question. So, she opened her TikTok profile—she had 99,000 followers at the time—and frantically looked at her recent videos. Sure enough, in a recent upload that showed her spilling her coffee, she had accidentally captured her boss speaking.
“The video had been up for a little over 30 hours,” Serna said. It was 20 seconds long and had amassed less than 1,000 views. “It’s weird that somebody sent it to [HR] within 24 hours. They probably were already monitoring my TikTok.”
Thanks to TikTok’s ultra personalized algorithm, people who make or are captured in viral videos get fired all the time—and make headlines for it. And videos about labor have taken over TikTok in the last year: The app has become a place where workers can swap strategies and stories regarding working from home, in retail, in food service, and of course, quiet quitting.
That said, it’s unclear if workers posting about their jobs realize that their bosses might be watching even their barely circulated videos. Employees who post about work, at times inadvertently and to a much smaller audience, end up feeling like their employers are becoming a bit more like “big brother,” as described by Sarah Redhammer, who was also fired for her TikToks.
Redhammer worked at GameStop locations in Tallahassee, Florida, for almost two years before being fired over her TikTok presence in August. She told the Daily Dot that she was frequently mistreated by customers and began to record her interactions with them because GameStop “takes [the customer’s] side even if it violates their policy.”
“A lot of the crap that they pulled got old,” Redhammer said. “TikTok was a place to vent.”
Her experience of being fired was similar to Serna’s: Her district manager came into the store halfway through her shift and asked her to join him and an HR representative in the backroom.
“They didn’t like the way I talked about some products and customers” on TikTok, Redhammer said. Her district manager also mentioned a video she had taken at work that captured a safe, which was deemed a “security risk.” When she was fired, she had less than 5,000 followers. She says her videos were most popular with other GameStop employees, who she was able to connect with.
While Redhammer acknowledges that her TikToks were public and that making TikToks on the clock is an understandable issue, being fired for her TikToks—and not her work ethic or character—made Redhammer feel like she wasn’t allowed to have a voice outside work.
The European Union (partially) addressed concerns from workers like Redhammer in 2017: As part of the General Data Protection Regulation, European employers are no longer allowed to look at the social media profiles of job applicants during the application process. If they must, employers are required to inform applicants that their profiles will be viewed.
The U.S. legislation protecting employee social media isn’t as sweeping. Twenty-six states and Guam protect employee data on social media when it comes to their private accounts (think, accounts that require follow or friend requests to view profile content). But legislation in 14 of those states allows employers to view employee social media “in the public domain.”
Corresponding legislation in California, where Serna is located, doesn’t say anything about public social media. And Florida, where Redhammer worked, doesn’t have any such provisions.
Without federal legislation, the majority of workers’ social media profiles are fair game for employers in the U.S., University of San Diego professor Orly Lobel explained in a phone interview with the Daily Dot. Lobel also heads the university’s Center for Employment and Labor Policy.
“For applicants, or for current employees, anything that employers can find—without hacking—they can use [against employees],” Lobel said.
And she thinks posting on social media, like TikTok, could be considered a way for employees to go public—or “blow the whistle”—about mistreatment from employers while being protected from termination by the Whistleblower Protection Act. But employees would need to do so without sounding like they’re simply badmouthing their employer.
Lobel predicts that in the future, job recruitment and employment will become even more online and automated, with employers possibly making hiring and firing decisions based on facial recognition and other forms of data collection. And she expects that such advancements could prompt relevant policy changes.
“As a society, we may decide that there should be some digital spaces and times that should be off limits for data collection,” Lobel said.
As for Serna, she says she harbors no ill will against the tech company that fired her for accidentally posting her boss speaking in a meeting on TikTok—but that her immediate termination was “a bit of an overreaction.”
That said, she doesn’t think that employers’ attitudes about monitoring employee social media will change.
“I should never have expected [my job] to care about me as an individual,” Serna said. “And at the same time, as a company, they have themselves to protect.”