An innocuous, if supportive, tweet to presidential candidate Donald Trump resulted in the firing of a female executive, according to a complaint filed in federal court in Philadelphia that also alleges sex and age discrimination. The reported response to that tweet raises questions of how much control employers should have over what employees say and do on their own time.
Kathleen Jungclaus, 57, former vice president of human resources for Waverly Heights, a high-end Gladwyne continuing-care retirement community, was fired after her boss confronted her about the tweet, according to the complaint filed in October 2017.
The July 2016 tweet is neither the beginning nor the end of the story. Here's what it said:
@realdonaldtrump I am the VP of HR in a comp outside of Philly / An informal survey of our employees shows 100% AA employees Voting Trump
Jungclaus calls herself a fiscal conservative who became a Trump supporter, with reservations, and still is. "I support some of his policies. I don't always like his personality," she tells me. A native of the Northeast, Jungclaus graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School before earning a B.A. in psychology at Gwynedd Mercy College.
She had almost 20 years with the company when she sent the tweet in the midst of the presidential campaign, during which Trump was demonized, some say rightly, as a racist.
The "informal survey" she mentioned was based on two conversations: one with a Waverly Heights kitchen employee, an African American, who said he was for Trump. "The whole kitchen is voting for Trump, the whole neighborhood is voting for Trump," she quotes the man as saying. Waverly Heights has nearly 300 employees, 64 percent nonwhite, says company spokesperson Jeff Jubelirer.
The other was when Jungclaus shared her finding with her husband, Raymond, who said he had heard the same thing from Hispanic administrative employees where he worked.
"Wow, that's interesting," Jungclaus thought.
So she tweeted it out, something she rarely did, to her "six followers, mostly family members," she says. "It never got retweeted, it never got liked."
There was nothing in her Twitter profile to connect her with her employer. Jubelirer says tweeting about something in the workplace was "objectionable" and showed poor judgment.
She was fired a few months later by CEO Thomas Garvin, who said the tweet violated the company's social-media policy, the suit alleges.
Garvin learned about the tweet in an anonymous letter. The anonymous person would have had to do some research to find out where Jungclaus worked, because the tweet was sent on her personal account, not using Waverly Heights equipment or identifying Waverly Heights in any way, she says.
"We don't think this person is so anonymous," says Mark Schwartz, Jungclaus' attorney, suggesting someone at Waverly Heights was out to get her.
In its answer to the suit, Waverly Heights denies wrongdoing.
To Schwartz (and me), the tweet was a simple political observation, her personal belief, not even an endorsement.
The lawsuit says the company's social-media policy permits "employees to write blogs and use social networking sites and does not want to discourage employees from self publishing and self expression."
If Waverly Heights says Jungclaus was fired for violating the social-media policy, it has some explaining to do.
Schwartz has almost 200 pages of right-wing emails, starting in 2014, addressed to Waverly Heights employees at their work accounts, by Waverly Heights board chairman Chuck Soltis. The emails, containing text and cartoons, attack and defame former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Soltis was never disciplined, says Schwartz.
The suit alleges the supposed social-media policy violation was a pretext, that the company retaliated against Jungclaus for advocating for women who were being paid less and given fewer perks than male execs at the same level.
Of course, wage equity is what HR is supposed to ensure.
At the time she was fired, Jungclaus was paid $120,000 plus benefits. She was unemployed for almost 2½ years and only recently began a job with a home care service for $45,000 a year. Her lawsuit seeks back pay and compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $150,000. A jury will decide that.
As for the rest of us, we must decide if we are in job jeopardy every time we post.