Another Social Media Disaster: Should You Fire Someone for an Off-Color Joke?
BY Suzanne Lucas
What happens when an employee makes a conflict public?
Would you fire someone for an off-color joke?
A public firing, brought about by the Internet, is in the news again. Well, two public firings. The first was a man, sitting in a PyCon technology convention, who made a sexually-charged comment to a woman.
The second was the woman who heard the joke, got highly offended, and blogged about it, complete with a picture of the "offenders."
If either one of these people were your employees, should you terminate them?
Personally, I hate crude language. I avoid it. I wouldn't tolerate it from a coworker, nor a friend. If there's an Inc.com prude contest, I am the guaranteed winner. But, if I were sitting in an audience and overhead someone joking about "dongles," I would ignore it.
(As an aside, I'm rather ticked off that there are women out there who are so wimpy and sensitive. Why not turn around and say, "I'm sorry, but that's inappropriate. Could you please keep it down?" Nope. Instead we ask an authority figure to come down and tell the bad men to be quiet.)
If I received a complaint that one of my employees had made a crude joke at a convention and was overheard by someone who wasn't an employee, I'd say, "Be careful when you are at company-paid events. You represent the company, and you never know who is listening."
As for the person who tweeted and blogged about the event, and published the picture: You certainly have the right to do that. But, why would you? No one was harmed. It wasn't threatening. You could have made your point about the terrible sexists that dominate IT without posting the picture. In fact, the picture did nothing to help your story at all. The only reason to do it was because you want to get someone in trouble.
I don't want someone like that on my staff. Neither did the boss of Adria Richards, the complaining woman. He employer, SendGrid, explained, "Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers."
The CEO later released a statement that made it clear that she wasn't fired for complaining about sexual harassment, but rather how she handled it.
I agree with this. If you feel you are being sexually (or racially, or due to disability) harassed, please report it. Report it to your boss or the HR department. But don't tweet it. Don't blog it. Don't publish pictures of the offenders.
Now, there is some concern that Adria Richards could sue--and win--claiming that her firing was due to retaliation. That is, she was fired for reporting sexual harassment. Employment lawyer Eric B. Meyer says that this is definitely a possibility.
On the other hand, employment lawyer Jon Hyman points out that these men, sitting behind Richards, had no relationship to her employer, therefore, there is no case against the employer. He writes:
What could Richards' employer have done? It couldn't conduct an investigation. It couldn't discipline the alleged perpetrators. All it could do is alert the conference of the issue and suggest that Ms. Richards distance herself from the situation.
Ms. Richards did not complain about illegal discrimination. She complained about boorish behavior by two individuals completely outside of her employer's sphere of control.
So, would I have fired the man who made the offending comment? Absolutely not. (Although, his company used the word "investigation," which may indicate that they actually looked into this and found that this was typical of his behavior in the office. In which case, firing may or may not be appropriate.) Would I remind him of the sexual harassment policy? You bet.
And even though I'm pretty annoyed by Richards' behavior, I'd be unlikely to fire her either. Counsel her about tweeting on company time and giving her a nice lesson on time and place. But fire her? No.