When a car shopper's teenage son drove a new Land Rover into a pond, executives at Karl Knauz Land Rover in suburban Chicago were mortified.
But the worst was yet to come. A salesman next door at company-owned Karl Knauz BMW photographed the partially submerged vehicle and posted the pictures on his personal Facebook page with the caption: "This is your car. This is your car on drugs."
The 2010 incident, which resulted in the firing of Facebook poster Robert Becker, has become a closely watched social-media legal precedent.
The issue for dealers: Many marketers view social media as a good way for salespeople to engage customers, establish a following and build sales. But salespeople need to behave within limits to protect dealerships' reputations, which is where Becker comes in. In September, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the firing was justified after Becker brought the case.
But the ruling had a cautionary component. That same board, by a 2-1 vote, determined that Becker had been within his rights as an employee to criticize in another Facebook posting the BMW store's serving of hot dogs at a 5-series launch event.
Becker, who had alleged that he had been fired for that posting, had mocked management for the lowbrow choice.
"The courts have been all over the board" on what's protected employee activity, said Kathryn Carlson, director of human resources products for dealership consultancy KPA.
Becker did not return phone calls and an e-mail last week.