Offensive Tweets

Last month, PR Executive Justine Sacco boarded a flight from the USA to South Africa. As she did so, she sent the tweet above, then settled in for a booze-filled trans-oceanic journey. Unbeknownst to her, her tweet started a shitstorm of online activity, as many people were justifiably offended by her words.

When she arrived in South Africa, she tweeted:

…Because, as is widely known now, her employer InterActive Corp did indeed fire her. Ms Sacco subsequently issued an apology. But the damage had been done, and the media pundits all lined up to give their analyses: the Huffington Post, Forbes, CBC, etc.

Of course a “PR Executive” for a large New York firm should have known better. But that’s not the issue I want to bring up. As you probably know, I enjoy a fairly active social media lifestyle. And I straddle many worlds: scientist, educator, consultant, journalist, novelist, and humourist. Those worlds don’t always coexist nicely in the larger social milieu (even though they sit quite happily and conflict-free within my own psyche). I have something resembling a fairly successful career right now, so can comfortably make some off-colour public comments with some confidence of my financial security (though nothing is ever 100% secure, especially for a pre-tenure professor!)

In the past, my personal social libertarian values have clashed with the control-oriented values of the traditional employment infrastructure. My favourite example is this blog post, which eventually led to my departure from a particular place of employment some years ago.

Was I being offensive in that blog post? I don’t think so, but someone did. Was it of relevance to my employer? It had nothing to do with my employer, but he made it his business. Similarly, was Justine Sacco’s tweet offensive? She didn’t think so. It also had nothing to do with her employer. But her employer –and the world, for that matter– made it their business.

In both cases, the expression of personal belief unrelated to one’s work or workplace resulted in sanction (or in my case, attempted sanction) from an employer. Is this defensible? There is an argument that an employer must act in his or her best interests, inasmuch as the public perception of an employee starts to wash off on the employer. On the other hand, without freedom of individual expression untied from financial dependence, we do not have a healthy and fair society.

All actions have consequences. My definition of ethical behaviour is being responsible for the foreseeable consequences of one’s own actions. Was it foreseeable that there would be a shitstorm after Sacco’s tweets? Sure. Was it foreseeable that my employer would be pissed at my (very innocent) blog post? Not so much. But I suppose one could argue that it was.

I think it’s fair for an employer to resist hiring someone whose proven public activities might prove embarrassing for them in the future. But to make that determination after a hire is philosophically problematic indeed. I have long argued that, in theory,  a truly private citizen is free to use whatever criteria he wishes to select his employees, even racist, sexist, and other exclusionary criteria.  Public employers, on the other hand, represent society and must therefore be more inclusive. This libertarian outlook breaks down, though, when we realize that even private employers enjoy great financial, legal, and infrastructural support from greater society, so are also obliged to be more inclusive in their hiring practices.

Once hired, and once job skills are proven, I cannot imagine a scenario in which an employee can be dismissed solely based on his personal activities or outlook.

This argument is more easily understood in the context of political stances.  What if the employer objects to an employee’s political stance? If an employer is conservative, is it right that an employee be cowed into not expressing his liberal views (on his own time) for fear of unemployment? Is this the democratic society we want?

In the USA, there are several instances of employers punishing employees for their political stances, such as this (unconfirmed) story of a woman fired for voting for Obama. It works the other way, too, with liberal employers sanctioning employees with conservative views. And there are many more stories of employees being canned for saying offensive things in public, as in the story of UFC fighter Miguel Torres being released from the promotion for his tasteless rape joke.

This Columbia Tribune article breaks down the scenarios in which an employer is ethically (and one assumes legally) justified in punishing an employee for his or her political stances:

  • When discriminatory language is used
  • When it wastes time at work
  • When stance is taken while the employee is representing the employer

And this last point I quite disagree with:

  • When the employer is vocal about his or her (presumably opposing) view

The latter might be strategically sound, but not ethically defensible.

The European Court of Human rights has stated that someone cannot be fired for their political views. The laws will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But what interests me is not whether there is legal protection, but whether we can agree that it is in the social best interests to protect these rights in a liberal democracy.

A further question is whether Justine Sacco’s tweet –and my blog post– qualify as “political stances”. Not overtly, they do not. However, I would argue that my post had a touch of Swiftian satire. But the question is, I would argue, irrelevant. Speech is speech, and it is always free if expressed on one’s own time and on one’s own platform. It doesn’t matter if that speech is political, bawdy, pointless, offensive, or banal.

Free speech does not mean that society is required to give you a platform for your words. It just means that government, and possibly society as a whole, cannot seek to silence you. (I would argue that this goes for so-called “hate speech”, as well.) Thus, if you expressed your sentiment on your own time and on your own platform (blogs, tweets, flyers published in your basement, etc) then a free society cannot shut you down. Society can shout back at you, expose the flaws in your thinking, and call you names; but it cannot take away your livelihood or your voice.

Perhaps you were offended by Justine Sacco’s tweet. I was. But exactly how does being offended confer the right of an employer to remove Ms Sacco’s livelihood? Presumably, she was still performing her duties at work with sufficient expertise and diligence. Consider: if an employer can fire you for things you do in your personal life and on your own time, does it then follow that they are justified in firing you:

  • if you are a homosexual
  • if you voted for a candidate of which they disapprove
  • if you are of an ethnicity or religion of which they disapprove
  • if you were seen drunk with your friends at a pub one weekend
  • if you have too many parking tickets
  • if you got into a public argument with someone

The list is endless. Yes, some of the above is protected by law in some jurisdictions. But again, my argument is not a legal one, but a philosophical one. Where is the line drawn? I draw it here: so long as my employee performs his tasks well and does not engage in his personal activities distractingly while at work, I have no right to terminate him…. even if he harbours (and publicly expresses on his own time) beliefs that might make me cringe.

Otherwise, we have a scenario in which the employers of our world have been elevated to the status of social police.  Increasingly, morality clauses are being built into work contracts, for the sole purpose of allowing a dismissal if an employee engages in an activity deemed immoral to the employer.  This is horrifying to me.  We are all free to be vocal, to be offensive, to be sexual, to be different.  And we should be free to be those things without fear of the authoritarian powers of the morality police, now embodied in the form of the employer.

So, Justine Sacco, I think you were an idiot and mildly racist for your tweet. But I also think you were fired unfairly.