What happens when you attain a major goal? Let's say a project you worked hard on turns into a big success. An investment you made doubles in value. Or you land a dream job. If you're like most people, successes like these can lead you to believe in your own talent and smarts. You may crow to the world about how wonderful you are, which is fine. But in this age of social media and instant access, remember that anyone and everyone will be listening when you do.

That's an important lesson that an unnamed young woman just learned the hard way. Identified only as Naomi H (Twitter handle: @NaomiH_official), she apparently recently landed a coveted internship at NASA. She was very excited--some might say too excited. She announced her appointment with profane exuberance in a tweet: "EVERYONE SHUT THE F--K UP/I GOT ACCEPTED FOR A NASA INTERNSHIP"

Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer, current member of the National Space Council, and inspiration for the movie October Sky, which was based on his memoir Rocket Boys, happened to see the tweet. "I'm a Vietnam vet and not at all offended by the F-word," Hickam explained later in a blog post which has apparently been taken down but is still archived here. "However, when I saw NASA and the word used together, it occurred to me that this young person might get in trouble if NASA saw it." And so, he tweeted her a one-word warning: "Language."

Now, right here is where Naomi H--and some of her friends--could have changed the whole outcome of this story. Take the warning in the spirit it was intended. Pay it some attention. This is still the federal government you're dealing with, and while it may employ a lot of Right Stuff Chuck Yeager types, it also employs a lot of stuffy bureaucrats not known for their appreciation of youthful exuberance or street language. The smartest move would have been to take down the original tweet. But they probably would have been fine with the second-smartest move, which would have been simply to do nothing.

They didn't choose either of these options. Instead, Naomi H responded to Hickam with even more profanity: "Suck my dick and balls I'm working at NASA"

Hickam, with admirable restraint, merely replied, "And I am on the National Space Council that oversees NASA."

With friends like these...

There might have still been a chance to save the situation at that point. Once Hickam explained who he was, Naomi H may have realized she'd made an error. (Since then, she appears to have made her Twitter account private.) Unfortunately, some of her well-meaning friends apparently jumped in to defend her. Hickam merely notes that they "said a lot of unkind things," although, if their everyday use of language is similar to hers, it seems likely their comments were equally profane. But--and here's the dumbest part of this very dumb story--they used the hashtag #NASA in their messages to Hickam.

It may well be that up until that moment no NASA official was aware of the exchange. But NASA employees do pay attention to the #NASA hashtag, as one might expect. They saw the conversation. And, according to Hickam's blog post, they decided to revoke Naomi H's internship because of it. Hickam goes out of his way to note that he had nothing to with this--and could not have had anything to do with it because he has no direct involvement in hiring or firing. He also writes that the young woman reached out to him with what he terms an unnecessary apology. He says he apologized in turn and, after speaking to Naomi H and reviewing her résumé​, has concluded that she deserves a good job in aerospace and is working to help her get one. He also says he contacted NASA to make sure there is no black mark on her record. He even says she can re-apply for an internship if she wants. (NASA has so far made no public statement about the incident nor responded to a request for comment.)

This story may have a happy ending for Naomi H, thanks to Hickam's extraordinary generosity of spirit. If so, she's very, very lucky. In most situations, you just can't tell your boss's boss's boss to "suck my dick and balls" and expect to wind up with a good job. 

As always, it's a simple lesson. When it comes to social media, you have three choices: You can set your privacy settings to tightly control who sees what you say. You can limit yourself to only posting or tweeting content that you wouldn't mind if your mother or your boss saw. Or you can face the likelihood that sometime--either now or in the future--something you've done or said on social media could come back to damage your career.

Published on: Aug 23, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.