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On why you shouldn’t get fired for internet prickery

The problem with human interaction is that it’s so fucking nuanced. I mean, why can’t people just be obviously good or evil? It would be much easier to decide whether we should give someone a knighthood or throw them to the wolves.

There’s been a trend recently that I find utterly disturbing, of people being hauled over the coals for misjudged (and sometimes utterly prickish) comments that they have made on the internet, and I’d like to take a bit of time to lay down some ill-thought-out rules and opinions. If you want to skip the waffle, go straight to my 3-step guide to not being a prick on the internet.

In the meantime, here’s why I don’t think you should be fired from your job for being rude on the internet.

Representing your company

You, as an individual, are representative of your company, right? Wrong. I feel quite strongly about this, and it is my duty as an anonymous sex blogger to point out that nothing I write on the internet in any way relates to my job. If it did, my job would be far more interesting.

Yes, if you’re tweeting from a company account, you should conduct yourself as if you were on company business – no gratuitous swearing or trollery. This should be fairly common sense. But just as I wouldn’t expect to conduct a pub chat as if I were chairing a meeting, likewise I will say things on my personal Twitter feed that I would never say at work.

But when people who tweet personally are then linked to their job, the waters get a bit muddy. This week Grace Dent received what I can only describe as a tawdry, prickish insult on Twitter. Rather than ignoring or blocking the offending person, she clicked through to his biog, where he had a link to his personal website that had a link to the company where he worked. A company that happened to represent Grace Dent.

This man was an idiot. By his own admission he shouldn’t have posted it. Were I his boss I’d be having a serious chat with him about the nature of social media, and insisting that he remove all links to his workplace from his profile. But I categorically do not think that he should be fired.

If he’d threatened her, yes. If he’d been bigoted, or obviously inciting hatred, maybe. But he made a stupid joke about her looks. The problem is that this is a level of reasonably inane and harmless cuntery compared to hate-speech and threats, and we find it hard to come up with a solution that deals with the nuance. Grace Dent has decided that she would like him to be fired.

I have a lot of respect for Grace Dent, who is the epitome of everything I admire – someone who gets paid to write funny stuff on the internet. But in this case I think she’s desperately wrong.

Pic and Mix rules

If you accept that what you say on Twitter is subject to scrutiny by your workplace, you have to accept that your workplace could skip over the insults you’ve written and instead concentrate on the more personal/political things that you say.

It’s then more than possible to end up with situations where someone will be censored not because what they’re saying is offensive, but because it isn’t in line with company policy.

You could tweet about a political figure on whose good side your company would like to stay. You could say something negative about an organisation that your own company is about to partner with. In the case that inspired this post, you could say something rude about a client of your company. Or finally, in a sudden and sledgehammer admission of my own personal interests in this tale, you could tweet about piss play and get fired for being a pervert.

I’m not saying people should say and do what they like and damn the consequences. It’s of the utmost importance that people at least try to conduct themselves with courtesy and respect, because otherwise society will fall to bits and you’ll end up sitting at a laptop in the middle of a nuclear armageddon typing “OMG u r a troll you fat slag lolz” while the remnants of civilisation crumble to dust around you.

All I’m saying is that we should be careful what we wish for – accept that a man gets fired for being catty about a client and we have to accept a certain degree of company interference in tweets that we post on our personal stream. And that way lies unemployment for political bloggers, interestingly opinionated tweeps and – most importantly – me.

 

Final thoughts:

To prove I’m not advocating total anarchic trollery, and for those unsure of how to conduct themselves online, I have compiled a handy 3-step guide to not being a prick on the internet. Please print out, affix to your screen, and have a glance every once in a while before you post rude things about powerful journalists.

Three-step guide to not being a prick on the internet

1. Got a criticism that is threatening, illegal or hate-filled? Don’t post it.
2. Got a criticism that doesn’t fall into category 1 but would be hurtful to the person on the receiving end? Don’t @ them in it.
3. Got a criticism that is thoughtful, interesting and genuinely contributes to the discussion? @ the author, reblog, talk about it, or spaff your wisdom intelligently in the comments.

13 Comments

  • Robert Winckworth says:

    Has this idiot actually been dismissed? I thought her response was quite amusing myself.

  • budgie says:

    While I thoroughly approve of your three ways not to be a prick on the Internet, I think you’re completely wrong on the main point of this piece. And not because I know Grace Dent, say. She doesn’t know me from Adam, though I suppose she’d guess I wear more clothes. Usually.

    But this “should he suffer in his job for what he posts on his personal account?” question.

    Let’s take four examples: two extremes, where I think it’s black and white, and two more nuanced situations, each concerning someone who insults a celebrity (minor or otherwise).

    (1) 1st Extreme: Insulter doesn’t know celeb, and vice versa. They’ve never met, are unlikely to, and there’s no contact between them. Insulter is being a dick by posting a personal insult about the celeb, but that’s it, no more than that. I’ve no doubt the fans of the celeb won’t like it, nor will the family, but that’s what online life is like now. Minor harm, no foul.

    (2) 2nd Extreme: Insulter is employed directly by the celeb, as in the celeb pays their wages, expenses, etc. Pretty common for employees to owe a duty of care to their employer; insulting them online is a direct attempt to harm the celeb’s marketability, especially if it is revealed that the Insulter is an employee. Were I to publicly insult the product of my employers, or my employer’s internal practices deliberately to harm the employer, I’d almost certainly be in breach of my contract of employment. Again, I consider this a black and white issue.

    (3) 1st non-Extreme: Insulter is employed by the celeb’s accountants, say. Or their lawyer, or their property agent. There’s no duty of care not to harm a client’s ‘image’ or marketability, as far as I can see, other than an implicit part of agency to act bona fide for the benefit of the client. I would expect some form of bollocking from the actual employers, and probably a written apology to the client, but no more than that for a first offence.

    (4) 2nd non-Extreme: Insulter is employed by the celeb’s PR company, whose purpose (for which substantial fees are paid) is to promote the celeb, to – in trite terms – make the client look good, and to prevent things that harm the marketability of the client. In that case, I think there’s an explicit as well as implicit duty not to insult the client. He is totally free to insult a celeb… as long as his employer ain’t representing them on a PR basis. Now, I don’t consider it as serious say as an accountant tweeting about confidential tax arrangements or a lawyer tweeting about trial strategy, but the person has a duty to their client, and they’ve breached that duty about as directly as its possible to do. Should he be fired? He shouldn’t give the employer the opportunity to fire him. He should have offered his resignation first thing this morning.

    • girlonthenet says:

      Ooh, interesting – thanks. OK, I obviously agree with you on situation 1, so will put that to one side. I think the main thing that worries me about this situation is that he was not openly tweeting on behalf of his employer.

      His account was linked to a website where he told people who he worked for, which was stupid, but ultimately he was not tweeting in an ‘official’ capacity. Just as, if I were to make a speech at a political rally that I supported a certain government decision on tax, my remarks would not (and should not) be taken to represent those of my employer. If I did it on a saturday afternoon, in a non-work capacity, even if my speech included criticisms that might harm my company, I think I have a right to be politically active without being fired.

      I feel like in this case the rightness or wrongness of firing the guy comes from whether you think that his tweets – as a general rule – are those of his company. Is he tweeting as a professional, or is he tweeting as Joe Average, who happens to have some opinions?

      So applying that to your situations – 2 becomes an issue for his employer if he is very open on his twitter account about what he does. 3, I think I broadly agree with you. 4 – much much trickier. Did he know that she was a client? Is he under contractual obligation not only to protect her image during the course of his work but also during the course of his personal life? And if so, what impact does that have on conversations he might have elsewhere? What happens if one of the clients is a political party/individual about which he has strong (and not quite so prickish) reservations? Should he remain quiet?

      Final point – I shudder a bit at the use of the phrase ‘it is revealed that’. This situation is complicated enough when it’s clear who the person’s employer is, but what about those blogging/tweeting anonymously? Should, in a year’s time, someone find out who I am and who I work for, will my writing be held up as something that represents the company I work for? I certainly hope not – nothing I say here has anything to do with work, but I might moan about a long meeting on Twitter, for example. I appreciate your comments, but I can’t bring myself to think that employers should have greater sway over what their employees do/say outside the office.

      In the name of full disclosure I should point out that I’m mostly terrified because I, like almost everyone else, can also sometimes be a gigantic prickbag.

      • budgie says:

        Cheers.

        Not sure of the etiquette on here, so you’ll forgive me if quoting isn’t the done thing…

        “I think the main thing that worries me about this situation is that he was not openly tweeting on behalf of his employer.”

        Yes, but again, any employment carries a duty of care to the employer, and your duties in your role.

        “Just as, if I were to make a speech at a political rally that I supported a certain government decision on tax, my remarks would not (and should not) be taken to represent those of my employer.”

        If you were employed by, say, a lobbying organisation whose job it was to protest against that decision, sorry, protesting FOR it leaves you wide open. (I’ll avoid the obvious here…) If you want to protest for something, don’t take on the obligations that come along with working for someone who protests against it.

        “If I did it on a saturday afternoon, in a non-work capacity, even if my speech included criticisms that might harm my company, I think I have a right to be politically active without being fired.”

        I’m not sure how anyone in that situation – where you’re actively operating against the employer’s interests – looks in the mirror without wincing.

        “I feel like in this case the rightness or wrongness of firing the guy comes from whether you think that his tweets – as a general rule – are those of his company.”

        See above.

        “So applying that to your situations – 2 becomes an issue for his employer if he is very open on his twitter account about what he does.”

        And as long as the employer consents, yes, I’d agree. If the employer doesn’t consent, well, he has a choice: the tweets or the job.

        “4 – much much trickier. Did he know that she was a client?”

        I had genuinely not considered that he didn’t know. It’s possible, i guess, but i very, very much doubt it.

        “Is he under contractual obligation not only to protect her image during the course of his work but also during the course of his personal life?”

        I would argue he’s under an obligation not to harm it, which is not necessarily the same thing.

        “What happens if one of the clients is a political party/individual about which he has strong (and not quite so prickish) reservations? Should he remain quiet?”

        I’d argue he’s under an obligation of collective responsibility as long as they’re a client, or he works there… And sometimes long afterwards depending upon confidentiality clauses.

        It needs to be acknowledged that when you join a company, you voluntarily sign terms and conditions of employment. You don’t get to say later, while you’re still employed, “oh, I don’t like this clause or that clause” merely because you feel like being a prick. I’ve not seen this bloke’s terms of employment, but I’d put good money on there being a non-harming of client’s marketability clause or some such.

        “Should, in a year’s time, someone find out who I am and who I work for, will my writing be held up as something that represents the company I work for?”

        Obviously, we’ve not met, and I don’t know who you work for, but (a) unless you’re tweeting/blogging directly about your conlany”s activities, which you’re not, and (b) you choose to reveal your identity, it wouldn’t. The Nightjack blogger (the identity of who The Times disgracefully revealed) was obviously not blogging on behalf of his employer.

        Indeed, some bloggers whose identity or employers are known often have a sig reading something like:

        ‘Any opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not represent the views, opinions or stated policies of [company name].’

        That’s to protect both the blogger and the employer.

        (My favourite of those is an email from someone I know who works for Marvel Comics. It wished me a happy new year. Underneath was a corporate slog stating that the above email did not necessarily represent Marvel’s view…)

        “In the name of full disclosure I should point out that I’m mostly terrified because I, like almost everyone else, can also sometimes be a gigantic prickbag.”

        As can we all. Which means that while we have the right to blog, we also have concomitant responsibilities.

  • Jon says:

    But should a man who claims to be “Passionate PR profesional at H+K Strategies, digital communications evangelist” be fired not for the insult, but for the incompetence and staggering lack of understanding of an area where he professes expertise.

    I suspect Dent will ultimately think better of it and he won’t lose his job on her account but if I were his boss in a PR firm specialising in digital media I’d wonder who the hell I was employing.

  • I don’t have much sympathy for the guy because:

    a) he could easily have tweeted personal insults to his heart’s content if he hadn’t linked his company to his twitter account.

    b) his tweet was shield-your-eyes-against-the-cringe witless. That’s a crime in itself. Especially if (see c) your business is the art of persuasion.

    c) he works in PR for gods sake. If anyone should understand the pitfalls of this sort of thing it’s him. He’s paid on that VERY BASIS.

  • Sam says:

    “His account was linked to a website where he told people who he worked for, which was stupid, but ultimately he was not tweeting in an ‘official’ capacity. Just as, if I were to make a speech at a political rally that I supported a certain government decision on tax, my remarks would not (and should not) be taken to represent those of my employer. If I did it on a saturday afternoon, in a non-work capacity, even if my speech included criticisms that might harm my company, I think I have a right to be politically active without being fired.”

    Big difference between having potentially inflammatory opinions that you express online, and those opinions being directly related to your work.

    It’s an act of gross stupidity to insult, in a public forum, a client of the company you work for. It shows a general lack of awareness and sensibility. If I were his employer, depending on the calibre of his work, I’d either fire him or impose some really freaking severe sanctions to teach him a lesson for the future.

    I doubt my (market research) employer would appreciate me setting up a live feed of a man putting on a sign that reads “twatty consumers” and then sodomising a goat. Am I directly impugning their ability or harming their revenue with this feed? No. Am I casting a serious question in our client’s minds over their association with me, and their implied opinion of the dodgy behaviour if that association continues? Absolutely.

    In essence, certain things are protected. Political activism, sexuality, race. Opinions on the above. Being a stupid twat isn’t.

  • John Self says:

    Her lack of grace did dent my initial sympathy for her. But there is something disturbing about how we accept these insults – which in this case was directed at Dent, and because he started the tweet with her username, it would have been seen only by her and anyone who followed them both – as part of parcel of ‘life today’. Graham Linehan made a reasonable point as someone who has been on the receiving end of such stuff:

    http://www.twitlonger.com/show/h0ch1n

    (Actually, checking Linehan’s timeline to find that tweet, I see you’ve already engaged with him on the subject.)

  • Vincent says:

    There is legal precedent on this kind of thing. You may or may not have seen the story a few months ago about the woman sacked by Wetherspoons for slagging off some customers on her personal Facebook account (http://michaelscutt.co.uk/2011/05/18/employer-was-justified-in-sacking-employee-for-comments-on-facebook/).

    If your personal account can be linked to your employer, then they have the right to take action against you. However, the case I linked to above does make the point that your employer must have a robust social media policy that is breached by your actions. If this kid’s PR company didn’t have such a policy, they may find it much harder to justify dismissal in an employment tribunal. If he chooses to take it there, that is…

    Disclaimer: I’m not an employment lawyer, but I will be getting involved in writing such a social media policy for my employer over the coming months, so I’ve had to look into this area quite a bit recently.

    My additional golden rule: Don’t mix business and personal online. I have two Twitter accounts: one for spouting shite (although I don’t do mindless abuse) and one for professional contacts. It’s really not that difficult.

  • girlonthenet says:

    OK, long, rambly answer but I’ll try to deal with most stuff. If you’re looking for a specific reply to you, just ctrl+f your name, otherwise you’ll get terribly bored of my tedious opinions.

    Firstly I should say that GD announced today that the guy hasn’t been fired, and she saw the silly side. Kudos, I think – basically the best outcome after the shitstorm yesterday and for what my bullshit opinion’s worth I think she’s handled it really well.

    Vincent – thank you for the link! I have seen that, it’s an interesting case. I think that some employers deal with this shit really well by having a comprehensive social media policy (if you’re looking for inspiration, the BBC’s is very very good and basically says ‘if you do it outside work and you’re not connected to us from it, have at it’ which is eminently sensible). You might also be interested in this – http://www.xperthr.co.uk/article/111057/in-the-employment-tribunals–november-2011.aspx#crisp A case where the defence tried to use the human right to privacy to stop Apple firing an employee for critical facebook comments. He lost the tribunal, and I think part of it was down to the fact that Apple has a rigorous social media policy and trains their people so they’re very clear on the rules. I hope your social media policy is kind, and accepts employees’ rights to have a life, and opinions – even shitty ones – outside the workplace =)

    Sam – you make some good points, but I don’t think you really appreciate the point I’m making. Yes, he was a stupid twat. But I think by allowing our employer to define which of our opinions count as ‘stupid’ or ‘twattish’ – opinions that we have expressed outside work in a forum that is not openly about our work – we risk allowing them to censor more important opinions on the basis that they damage the company. There’s nothing objective about stupidity or twattishness, after all, so it’s difficult to rule on. Instead rules will be made about more nebulous things such as ‘harm to the company’ or – utter horror – ‘*potential* harm to the company’. Incidentally, I think the only thing that really damages the guy in this case is the link to his workplace on his blog. There I see a tenuous link whereby his work could *possibly yet tenuously* argue that he was representing them. But without that – no dice.

    Kitty (and also Jon) – I agree with you wholeheartedly. I know he’s stupid, and you’re absolutely right. But we can call him a cretin until the cows come home and still, no matter how idiotic he is in his own time, on his own personal twitter feed, I do not think he should be fired.

    budgie – completely disagree, of course =) “duties to his employer” – yes, he has duties to his employer, but should anyone’s duties automatically extend to their entire lives, as opposed to the time during which their employer is paying them? I don’t think so. Of course it depends on the job, but if you are expected to be ‘on duty’ all the time, 24/7, that’s something that I think your employer has a responsibility to make expressly clear in your contract. They should also advise you accordingly.

    I also have to disagree on everything you say about protest, and saying political things that are against the interests of your company. Quote:

    “I’m not sure how anyone … actively operating against the employer’s interests – looks in the mirror without wincing.”

    Perhaps because they need a job, and yet at the same time they need to have independent thought? I genuinely don’t understand why this is obnoxious to you, so it’s very hard to come up with a counter-argument.

    You also say, of my blogging, that it wouldn’t be a problem because I’m not:

    “(a) tweeting/blogging directly about your company”s activities, and (b) you choose to reveal your identity.”

    Interesting. Because this guy’s tweets were obviously not about his company’s activities. Are you saying he’d have been OK if he wasn’t identified? If so we’re actively encouraging people to hide their prickishness behind a blanket of anonymity. We’re not saying ‘don’t be a prick’ we’re saying ‘only be a prick anonymously.’

    You also mention the disclaimer “opinions expressed are my own.” Yes, this is a nice phrase. As far as I know, opinion is divided on whether it would actually stand legally in a situation where someone had properly fucked up, so it mainly acts as a veil of comfort rather than necessarily protection. But again – are you saying that if this guy had this disclaimer you wouldn’t be advocating that he were fired?

    To summarise, I essentially think that you are giving employers far more rights over individual employees than they ever should have. In your world, employers would have the right to censor your behaviour and speech in a way that we would deem utterly unacceptable *even if coming from an elected government*. I think that if you were right, because we’d effectively have handed over a certain amount of our lives to our employer (any public discussion of certain subjects, permission to voice opinions on things, etc) we’d be in a phenomenally weird situation where people who were unemployed had, in practise, more rights than those who were employed. And this simply in virtue of the fact that they do not have a job to lose.

    But I love your Marvel comics example. And you’re right – we do have a responsibility not to be a fountain of douchebags. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. As you can tell, I am genuinely excited by debate on this topic. I am now off for a reasonably intellectual wank.

    x

  • No long answer right here right now. Just my own little take on this tiny teacup tempest:

    http://thisismyengland.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/which-part-of-this-dont-you-get.html

  • x says:

    More importantly than all that:

    Grace Dent. Blimey. She could me anytime.

    I think I need a sit down.

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