Would you suspend an employee for a tweet?

What if that tweet was about rape allegations against Kobe Bryant, who just died?

What if the rest of the internet was focused on all his victories and the good he did, and your employee wanted to remind people that he wasn't a saint?

That's what happened to Washington Post reporter Felica Somnez who, in the midst of the sadness of Bryant's death (and the deaths of eight other people), tweeted a link to a Daily Beast article, Kobe Bryant's Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser's Story, and the Half-Confession.

The Washington Post suspended Sonmez, who says she received over 10,000 nasty messages--including death threats. And I, along with most of the internet, believed it was purely because of the decision to post a negative story in a very sad time. The Daily Mail reports:

Tracy Grant, managing editor of The Washington Post, told DailyMail.com on Sunday: 'National political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom's social media policy.

'The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.' 

The real reason behind the suspension is unknown, as a request for comment from The Washington Post went unanswered. But the answer may be more complicated. Journalist Mathew Keys says a Washington Post Insider tipped him off that it wasn't the original post, but screenshots that she included in follow up posts that revealed personally identifying information of the people who threatened her, a practice known as doxing. 

 

This becomes an entirely different situation. Doxing is serious business and that can undermine the entire company. If you can't trust a company to keep your personal information confidential, you'll be hesitant to work with them. 

Now, as someone who has been on the receiving end of death threats for articles I've written, I am not a huge fan of offering those people protection, but I see why her bosses would not have been thrilled. If I were going to expose anyone who sent me a death threat, I'd probably want to run it by my bosses here first.

Can you punish employees for their use (or misuse) of social media?

Regardless of whether Somnez penned the initial article--she didn't--is she required to make sure the information is accurate and relevant? If we hold that standard, all of us are guilty. Should a reporter be held at a higher standard? Yes, but she wasn't a sports or a crime reporter.

For the most part, there are no free speech protections in the private sector. (Some states and localities have guarantees, but there are no federal protections.) So, it's almost certainly legal to suspend or terminate or otherwise punish an employee for tweeting something you find objectionable. Even a journalist can only publish what their publisher wishes.

In this case, Somnez lists her affiliation with her employer in her Twitter bio. You could easily argue that she's always representing the company. If she's always representing her employer, then she needs to make sure her tweets are aligned with company policy.

This is why some company's social media policies include clauses about not posting while wearing company shirts, or identifying your employer in your bio. While vigilante Twitter mobs do, sometimes, track private people down and attempt to destroy their lives, most of the time a stupid or crude tweet, Instagram post, or TikTok video just disappears into the ether.

Suspension is better than immediate termination

Remember the Chipotle Manager who had a twitter mob after her? Chipotle gave into the mob and fired her--and then rehired her after they did their investigation. When 10,000 people are angry enough to send threats to your employee, your first obligation is to make sure the employee is safe and the second is to investigate. Suspension during that time period makes sense.

It gives everyone time to breathe and time to find out what really happened. It's a great tool that you can use when an internet mob forms against you or one of your employees. Take a step back.

Was Somnez suspended for tweeting the original article, or for doxing the people making threats, I'm not sure. Regardless, think through your response before terminating an employee based on a social media post.