The recent firing of an Internet executive who had posted inflammatory tweets serves as a warning to managers and employees alike: Reckless social media utterances can have serious ramifications.
Pax Dickinson lost his job as chief technology officer at news website Business Insider this month amid an uproar over his Twitter posts that readers viewed as misogynistic, racist, homophobic and against working poor people.
The episode demonstrates the risks in expressing offensive views on social media or elsewhere online—even if the author contends that the remarks were meant to be satirical.
“First, people need to be mindful of what they say. Dickinson has blogged that he was trying to be funny, but there’s a fine line between sarcastic and offensive—even comedians have gotten into trouble for crossing that line,” said Aliah D. Wright, author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites (SHRM, 2013).
“I tell people all the time: If it’s something that can potentially lead to the loss of employment, don’t put it on a social networking site, even if you think no one who matters will see it,” she said.
Employees shouldn’t expect to isolate their personal social media presence from their careers.
John A. Challenger, CEO of global outplacement consultancy Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc., recently cited a CareerBuilder.com survey that revealed that 43 percent of hiring managers who researched applicants through social media found information, including inappropriate photos and statements that prompted them to remove a candidate from consideration.
There is no barrier in social media between an employee and his or her company. People can’t shield themselves from consequences by stating in their profiles that their opinions are just their own, stressed William Tincup, SPHR, chief executive officer of HR consultancy Tincup & Co.
“If you act like a jackass, turns out there’re going to be ramifications of acting like a jackass,” he said. Companies need to make sure employees know that “if you do anything that makes us look bad, there will be repercussions.”
People are free to think whatever they want, but they need to filter what they say publicly, Tincup said, adding that it’s less a case of censorship than a matter of “good judgment.” Even as a self-employed consultant, Tincup must be mindful of his tweets. “If I do something offensive in social media, it could backfire,” he noted.
Wright said that while the law protects people who discuss their working conditions, “companies have and will continue to reprimand employees for engaging in what they consider egregious behaviors online. This case serves as a reminder.”
The best social media policies are based on common sense, and companies should give employees examples of behavior that is prohibited, Tincup advised. Rather than trying to keep employees offline, he said, businesses should deliver the message, “Don’t make us look bad, period, end of story.”
Zappos has a short and sweet rule that reflects its trust in its workers: “Be real, and use your best judgment.”
Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.