When should you fire an employee for his tweets?

Pax Dickinson, the former chief technology officer at Business Insider, lost his job because of his offensive tweets. This author discusses what business owners can learn from the controversy.

A couple of years ago, I watched a young woman tweet about how much she hated her job and boss. Part of me wanted to message her to tell her to take that stuff off the public timeline. Clearly she didn’t know what she was doing.

Then I saw her boss tweet to her, “No worries. You’re fired.”

I’d venture to guess she learned a valuable lesson. But she’s not the only person in the world who complains online. Just open your Facebook news stream. You’ll probably see at least one or two of your friends who hate their jobs, colleagues or something else that isn’t appropriate to put online.

The law is very vague. If an employee posts things on his personal page, on his own time and from his own computer, he’s not committing a fireable offense. After all, we can’t change what people say in their own homes.

The difference is now we can see what they’re saying—and so can the rest of the world.

Is the brogrammer culture OK?

So, where do we draw the line?

Pax Dickinson, former chief technology officer for Business Insider, tested the line when people began bringing attention to his anti-feminist, misogynist, anti-women in tech and racist tweets. Here’s one of the tamer ones:

Dickinson is a prolific tweeter, and he’s been tweeting stuff like this for quite some time. He started as early as 2010, and definitely tweets during work hours. It’s hard to argue that he used his own time or computer to send tweets like these, or that he didn’t violate a social media policy.

His on-the-clock social media activity has touched off a storm of stories exploring the “brogrammer” culture, what it means for women and minorities in tech, political correctness (or lack thereof) and so on.

But no business owner or manager can afford to overlook this little-covered aspect of the story: What your employees say and do on social media reflects on you and your brand whether you like it or not. It’s time to start paying closer attention.

To fire or not to fire?

What happens when social media updates like these come from a person in charge of hiring and firing, coaching and mentoring, and leading a team? A person who is clearly sexist and racist—based solely on what he says online—and could very potentially cause the company a lawsuit?

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV.

Most people who are active on social media have “opinions stated here are my own and not reflective of my company” in their bios, which is required as part of the company’s social media policy. But should that protect those people from saying things that could be used in a court of law?

Business Insider fired Dickinson a couple of weeks ago, stating only:

“A Business Insider executive has made some comments on Twitter that do not reflect our values and have no place at our company. The executive has left the company, effective immediately. The Business Insider team is composed of more than 100 talented men and women of many backgrounds, and we highly value this diversity.”

Since Dickinson was fired, he’s defended himself by saying his updates were “satire.” Unfortunately for him, not many others see it that way, including his former employer.

I learned some of my most valuable communication skills growing up. My dad always told us never to put anything in writing that we wouldn’t want someone to use against us later. I’ve carried that with me into the business world and into consulting with clients on communication.

Create a social media policy

As business owners, it’s hard to determine what our employees can and can’t say online. It’s also difficult to pay attention to what every single employee says and does online.

Your best bet is to have a social media policy. Clearly state what is and is not acceptable. (For instance, my company doesn’t allow swearing.) Be specific about what constitutes racism, sexism or harassment so people know what could get them fired. Get your HR, legal and communications people involved in creating the policy. Then, once you’ve communicated the policy to your team, review it once a month to determine whether you need to add something.

The best line to include in your policy is this: Don’t ever put something online you wouldn’t want your boss, grandma, kids or customers to see.

Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, Inc., and blogs at Spin Sucks. A version of this article first appeared as an OpEd in Crain’s Chicago Business. (Image via)

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