I just got off the phone with a potential client who lost his job because of a hateful comment he made to someone on Twitter. Realizing it was a bad decision to make the comment, he tried to delete it a few hours later. But to his horrible surprise, his comment had been forwarded to his employer and, within 72 hours, he was terminated.
A person this man does not even know took a screen shot of the tweets, looked up the potential client on Linked-In to find out where he worked, and then took the extra step to send the screenshots to the man’s employer. In just a few stokes on a keyboard, the potential client’s life has been changed forever, and not for better. This mistake may follow the potential client for the rest of his career.
He has already felt the consequences. When his name is typed into Google, the tweet he wrote re-appears. He has been searching for work for several months; a potential employer who said a job offer was forthcoming now has gone silent and will not return his calls. He can’t find a job anywhere.
The consequences of inappropriate social media posts are severe. Yes, employers will read what you write online, even though it has nothing to do with your job. Yes, employers actively monitor what you write. Yes, in the State of Texas, and many other states, your boss can (and will) fire you if your boss does not like what you post. Texas is an employment-at-will state and you can be fired for any reason that does constitute discrimination under Title VII. Your boss can even fire you for cause if your social media posts violate the company’s Social Responsibility Policy. No, the First Amendment does not protect you from being terminated in the State of Texas for what you write in social media.
I read what the potential client wrote. It was pretty bad. I understand why he thought he was being funny and I understand why others were offended. He made a mistake. I still feel compassion for him, regardless. He learned the hard way that a hateful comment, even if made as joke, can and will have far-reaching consequences. As the father of two young men who use social media frequently, I tell them as often as possible that everything they write online should be written as if they were writing to a future employer. It’s still OK to disagree with someone, but it’s never good to use hate speech.
What about the person who took the extra steps to take a screen-shot of the tweets, look the guy up on Linked-In, and report him to the Company HR director? As a legal matter, the comments were acquired legally. There is no law preventing someone from emailing comments made by person A to person B even if person B is in the Human Resources department of person A’s employer. Many people may feel this is unjust. Others will feel that the potential client got what he deserved. As an attorney and blogger, I do not sit in judgment. My objective is to help people try to anticipate issues before they occur and solve problems as they arise.
What can a person in this situation do? Own it. Apologize for it. Be truthful about the mistake. Someday, the fervor will die down. But do not mislead yourself into thinking that your conduct online will have no repercussions or that your First Amendment rights protect you. We reap what we sow, and if a person sows hate on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, one should not be surprised when encountering hate from a different direction almost immediately thereafter.