Why we need social media villains in the workplace

In this week’s column, Julia Rampen takes a look at the tension between our online and professional lives in the age of social media and explores the challenges employers face when striking a balance between the personal and professional.

If you commit a crime as a teenager, but don’t go to prison and don’t re-offend, after five and a half years the offence is expunged from your record (for adults, it’s 11 years). If you cause death by dangerous driving, you hold penalty points on your licence for four years. And if you’re Paul Chambers, your name still appears in the Google search results next to a misjudged joke you made eight and a half years ago, that cost you two jobs and nearly your freedom.

Social media and learning from failure

The idea of forgive and forget, it seems, does not apply to the online world. And this is particularly so when it comes to work. In many ways, this goes against the culture of the modern workplace, which encourages the idea of second chances. Post-Steve Jobs, it’s OK to “learn from failure”. There are appraisals, and reviews, and first warnings. Those who change jobs on a regular basis aren’t an object of suspicion – they’re building portfolio careers.

Social media, though, is different. There’s the Nobel prizewinner Dr Tim Hunt, who was forced to resign from his post at University College London in 2015 after his attempt at a joke at a conference was branded sexist (fair) and then became the focal point of an international Twitterstorm of outrage before he had even returned home (completely disproportionate). There’s Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP who was effectively sacked by then-Labour leader Ed Miliband in 2014 for tweeting nothing more than a picture of a house with a white van, a St George flag and the words “Image from Rochester”. And there’s Kimberley Swann, the pioneer of getting-sacked-for-social-media when, in 2009, the teenager told her Facebook friends she had a boring day at work. Paul Chambers, who was hoping to fly to Northern Ireland to meet a girl he liked, joked on Twitter that if Robin Hood airport didn’t reopen in time he would be “blowing the airport sky high”. He was prosecuted under counter-terrorism laws and dismissed from two jobs during the process.

Social media policy

There are, of course, reasons we react so harshly to ill-judged comments on social media. Like that time you heard your “friends” bitching about you as a kid, it’s hard to forget someone’s pure, unadulterated thought stream, however much they might want you to. The US sitcom star Roseanne Barr might have blamed a tweet using a common racist trope on her sleeping pills and ignorance, but in the meantime, the general public has woken up to the fact her Tweets have been sprinkled with unsavoury conspiracy theories for the past decade.

But it’s also fair to say that, in real life, most people would distinguish between the Tim Hunts and Roseanne Barrs of this world. I for one would rather have a colleague that made the occasional sexist joke and then admitted they were terrible when called out, than one that was quietly racist and also thought that the air conditioning was controlled by the Illuminati. And it’s time employers turned that thought into a policy. Why? Because given the role social media plays in our lives, sooner or later, it will be their turn to adjudicate.

See also: Why ITN’s decision to admit its BAME pay gap was smarter than it looks

Search and shame

Judging employees on their social media profiles is, increasingly, inevitable, and it only increases the more high profile they are. My former colleague Amelia Tait wrote extensively about what she called the phenomenon of “search and shame”, where amateur internet sleuths deliberately try to find offensive, rude or just naive statements an individual made years ago. Yet, as she pointed out in her article, the comments in question were made by the stars when they were teenagers, and by their own admission, ignorant and wrong. Just like the search-and-shamers, employers will scrutinise the Twitter and Facebook profiles of those they wish to hire. The difference between a reality TV star and the twentysomething applying for a graduate scheme is simply that the latter does not get the chance to explain to the recruiter scrunching up their application that they, too, have grown up.

Hermits and psychopaths

Why, the weary recruiter might ask as they reach for the next CV in the pile, does it matter, at least as far as the company is concerned? Well, because the “perfect” employee in social media terms is either a hermit or a psychopath. This is someone who has never shared a drunken photo of themselves on Facebook, never tried to impress their teenage peers on Twitter, never been brave enough to make a joke that might backfire, never expressed an opinion that diverged at all from the status quo, and never revealed any part of themselves that they wouldn’t put on a PowerPoint slide. Don’t get me wrong, one or two such flawless people might be fine, but if you’ve got no idea why someone might want to delete their social media content, you’ll never come up with the next Snapchat.

Separate the content from the backlash

The challenge for employers is to come up with a set of rules, and stick to them, even when the social media storm starts. If I were writing them, my first would be to separate the content from the backlash. The scale of outrage does not always reflect the crime. Furthermore, unlike a real storm, social media outrage can be orchestrated, through a subtle hierarchy of influencers directing their followers to “pile on”, or, in some cases, by entire “troll farms” with a hidden agenda. However big the mob outside the courtroom, it’s generally accepted that the jury should make up its mind based on the evidence heard inside.

Intent matters

Next would be the question of awareness or intent. Pretty much everyone disavows their offensive posts (see: “Someone must have hacked my phone”), but there are cases when the context is important. Words do often have double meanings, social media does have character limits, and phones are easy to access when you’re distressed or drunk.

Somethings can’t be dismissed

Third, there’s the fact that not everything can be dismissed. Britain’s first youth police commissioner was probably right to resign after it emerged she had previously used offensive slurs and joked about violence – the only alternative might have been to very publicly show she had learned her lesson by meeting with affected groups.

As for Paul Chambers? He appealed, won the case, and eventually married the woman he had been hoping to see. They first met on social media.