A St. Louis-area nonprofit has fired a 37-year-old office worker – after discovering that in her own time, the woman blogs about her polyamorous escapades.
The blogger – a single mother whose blog is called "The Beautiful Kind" – told St. Louis's The Riverfront Times she "really was Clark Kent" about keeping her office and her extracurricular life separate (and the extracurricular life was anonymous). But she made one fatal mistake: Using Twitter.
TBK, as she's known, refers to what happened to her as a Twitter "glitch." But her webmaster clarified to Inc. that her downfall was really "in the failure of how third party search/archiving sites work."
When TBK created her Twitter profile, she filled out her real name expecting that only her handle would be visible, not her true identity, her webmaster explained. The moment she saw her name pop up, she immediately removed it and adjusted the name field of her handle accordingly.
But unfortunately, the Twitter search engine Topsy already had cached the details and was displaying her name alongside her handle all this time. (If you visit a profile on Topsy, there is a sync button on the right and a user has to manually select that in order to update any changed profile information.)
"When a user updates their bio data on Twitter, there is no automated update mechanism to inform third parties such as Topsy," Topsy spokesman Brian Merritt told Inc.com. He said the company is "saddened" to hear of TBK's situation, and plans to add a feature that will allow users to delete individual tweets from Topsy that they do not wish to include in the index.
The service is available already on request, but the company hopes to make it easier for users to do it themselves.
He added: "We're also working with Twitter to see if we can come up with a scaleable solution for dealing with private-public account status changes, so that we can automatically remove content when accounts go private."
According to TBK, her boss – at the suggestion of top management – searched the web for information about employees, and discovered the sex blog. When she arrived at work April 27, she was fired on the spot.
Per an account TBK posted on another website, Aagablog, her boss was furious. 'I need to let you go," the woman said, according to TBK. "Corporate office suggested I Google employees. I typed in your name and it took me two seconds to find your website. How COULD you put that stuff out there? What were you thinking?! I feel like I'm talking to a 14 year old! We're DONE.'
Her boss said the organization couldn't be associated with anyone who was posting graphic images or erotica. "They wanted me to pretend that I never even was there; they want nothing to do with me, they want to act like it never happened," TBK said. (She doesn't make any money from her blog, she said. She used to make about $40 per month from having a PayPal button, but says the company suspended her account for having adult content.)
At the time of her firing, she had been working for the nonprofit for a month – and says she made every effort to be a model employees. "I dressed like a freaking Mormon when I went in," she wrote. "I was really overcautious and did an extra-good job. Because I always thought that if they ever did find out about it, I would have proved myself so much that they would weigh the pros and cons and decide to proceed a certain way that, you know, wouldn't fire me. But I wasn't there long enough to do that, and I don't think it would have made a difference anyway, with the way they reacted. It's like – I went from good employee to monster."
After her dismissal a letter from her former boss arrived.
It reportedly read: "We simply cannot risk any possible link between our mission and the sort of photos and material that you openly share with the online public. While I know you are a good worker and an intelligent person, I hope you try to understand that our employees are held to a different standard. When it comes to private matters, such as one's sexual explorations and preferences, our employees must keep their affairs private."
Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri told The Riverfront Times it's not an employer's job to police the sexual lives of its employees – "when an employer discriminates on that basis it is sex discrimination and it's against the law," he said. But TBK hasn't been specific enough about her circumstances for him to judge whether the employer's actions are illegal.
He did suggest that if the organization only were concerned about public image the problem could have been solved by TBK's taking down the blog (which she has done.)
"The fact that they didn't do that and instead just fired her causes one to believe that it really is the content that they had a problem with, and not really that they were concerned about a connection between her blog and the employer being made in the public," he said. (In 2004, Jessica Cutler – a staff assistant for then-U.S. Senator Michael DeWine who wrote a racy blog called Washingtonienne – was fired after the blog Wonkette revealed her identity. But Cutler's technical offense was "unacceptable use of Senate computers," since she blogged from work. Cutler, of course, ended up with a book deal.)
Wrote TBK's Webmaster on the question of legal action: "I won't go into details on the topic, but research into 'At-will employment'... gives an employer the right to terminate for any (or no) cause whatsoever (with a few exceptions). We could talk all day about how this doesn't protect an employee's rights in the wrong situation and how businesses can abuse this, but that's another topic for another time.
Moral of the story: Even if you think you're protecting yourself by deleting questionable tweets or hiding information, it may already be in the hands of a third-party site who is continuing to display it to the world.
Said TBK's webmaster: "What goes on social media doesn't always stay there."
Would you (or do you) search online for information about employees? Would you fire an employee over an indiscreet blog post?
Further Reading: Your 10-Step Guide to Blogging