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The world was shocked by the tragic events that took place on August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was not just the violence, which led to the senseless deaths of three innocent people and many more injured; it was also the image of hateful groups we usually think of as out on the fringe — neo-Nazis, white supremacists — being allowed public space to spew racist rhetoric, while ostensibly protesting the impending removal of a statue.
While one participant in the far-right rally was charged with murder afterwards, justice of another kind has arguably been served for others: people have used social-media platforms to expose the names of some who demonstrated alongside the alt-right protesters. As a result, a few of the rally participants were dismissed from their jobs. One man was fired from his position as a cook at a hot-dog restaurant, and another who had travelled to the rally from Vermont was terminated from a local pizzeria. Most employers do not want to be identified with hateful ideology, even indirectly.
Social media has made us accountable for our public behaviour. Online shaming is all the rage these days, and the consequences of inappropriate conduct can be instant unemployment — regardless of whether your conduct bears any relevance to your job or your ability to do it.
Two years ago, Shawn Simoes lost his job at Hydro One, Ontario’s power utility, after his defence of a man who had shouted obscene comments at a Toronto news reporter resulted in social-media outrage. Yet Simoes was one of the luckier “victims,” as Hydro One rehired him a few months later. An arbitrator ruled that the firing had been unjust, and Simoes’ union advocated for his side.
The Simoes story raises a number of questions: How much say should an employer have over a worker’s behaviour in his or her personal life? What behaviour outside the workplace can be regarded as worthy of termination? And what is the line between forgivable and unforgivable off-the-job conduct?
Consider former New York publicist Justine Sacco or Nobel Prize-winning British scientist Tim Hunt, both of whose careers and reputations were destroyed after their off-colour jokes caused international public outrage. Were their punishments fair, or were these cases of the Twitter mob overreacting to common faux pas? Did these terminations really make the workplaces safer or more inclusive, or were Sacco and Hunt scapegoats for their employers’ public images?
As Andy Warhol predicted, everyone has 15 minutes of fame — and fame is a risky deal. An inconvenient reality of the Internet age is that you have to be prepared to be held responsible for anything you say or do online. An uncouth joke or opinion may seem harmless, but an employer may not see it that way. It considers the employee to be a representative of the company, and anything he or she says appears to reflect the company’s public image and viewpoint. And words and actions promoting violence or hate — like those of the protesters in Charlottesville — will spark understandable concerns about workplace safety.
Call it Big Brother syndrome if you want, but social media is here to stay, and we have to be cautious. We may have lost some of our anonymity, but at least we have a better idea of who the real bad guys are, and that can help create safer work environments.
Jeff Cottrill is the acting editor of OHS Canada.