When it comes to social media, there’s never any shortage of celebrities being ‘cancelled’ due to tweets or social posts that went too far. But sometimes its regular employees’ social media antics that make for much more shocking stories.
As these examples show, sometimes the lines between right vs wrong aren’t clear-cut when it comes to social media behaviour. They serve lessons for employers and employees alike on avoiding the fallouts from a social media post gone wrong.
1. An Unhappy Ending To A Happy Event
The story of Rachel Burns stands as a cautionary tale for employees and employers alike. Rachel was a care home manager whose innocent celebration of a regular Friday night music event led to her being dismissed for gross misconduct.
Rachel was fired because she’d contravened Surrey County Council’s social media policy in four ways – one by posting a photo identifying one of the residents, a man with Down’s Syndrome who had jumped into the photo.
She eventually won her case for unfair dismissal. But, at what cost?
The resident’s sister and her husband didn’t believe that Rachel should have been fired despite it being defined as gross misconduct.
As his brother-in-law, Graham told the BBC:
"After 21 years is it appropriate to sack the manageress who's created a culture and environment at this special home in the way that they have?" asks Graham. "The answer is no, it's not."
Staff should always understand your social media policy and why it is in place. But remember not to act too hastily with disproportionate discipline measures - consider what your actions say to your customers and the public too.
2. Sharing Confidential Information
The Financial Diet told the cautionary tale of Ally, an assistant account executive who was fired for posting an Instagram photo after landing a new client. Her post was in direct violation of their company media policy and could have ruined the public announcement of their new client.
The head of the pitch team had even sent around emails for three days reminding people not to share anything on social media, which was especially important because reporters often follow creatives accounts. Ally admitted that the excitement got to her and,
“I figured, what’s the harm in posting a picture — and not even mentioning the new client in the caption — to my 200 followers? I figured a few people at the agency would see my humblebrag, but no one of note would. And furthermore, the clients didn’t follow me on Instagram.”
It’s hard to say whether her employer did enough to warn their employees that even posts from those with a small social media presence can post big repercussions - for the employer and employee, Ally’s final words serve could well be a social media policy line:
“If you’re not sure whether to post, or not to post, choose the latter”.
3. A Question Of Interpretation
"Conquering the world, one well-dressed fat lady at a time."
Connie Levitsky was a sales associate at Edmonton plus-size women's retailer Addition Elle, who was fired when her employer saw her Facebook job title. They told her they preferred to use the words “curvy or shapely”.
As she told CBC,
"I don't see fat as being a negative thing anymore". She felt that by taking offence to the term it reinforces “this perpetuation that fat people should be and are ashamed of themselves.”
Addition Elle admitted on Facebook that they’d made a mistake and that it "took the word 'fat' out of its context," worried it might offend customers and employees. They said,
"We believe that anyone should use whatever words they are comfortable with when describing themselves and whatever makes them feel empowered."
Ensure you understand your target market when creating your social media policy and involve your workers too – they can bring fresh perspectives you may have missed.
4. A Taboo Joke Without The Funny Side
Comedians have a habit of saying controversial tongue-in-cheek jokes and getting away with it. But on social media, the joke is often lost in translation when it’s a taboo topic.
Justine Sacco is the infamous PR Executive at IAC who shared this tweet before boarding her flight to South Africa back in 2013:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Justine Sacco later explained that her tweet was not intended to be racist - that living in America puts people in a bubble and she was making fun of that bubble. Sadly, there was no going back from her misguided tweet.
As Jon Ronson says in his Ted Talk: “Twitter got hold of her life and dismantled it piece by piece”. There is always a baying mob on Twitter that delight in bringing people to ‘justice’, with little care for the long-term repercussions their actions cause the ‘perpetrator’ long after the Twitter storm has calmed.
5. Naming And Shaming
Our fifth example is a real ‘red mist’ moment. Talia Jane left Yelp’s Eat24 in San Fransico, in her own words, “in a blaze…” after writing an inflammatory open letter to her CEO about her poor pay rate.
Despite the company declining to comment officially, Yelp’s CEO felt compelled to issue not one but five tweets rebuffing Talia’s accusations. However, two months after she was spectacularly fired, Yelp made several improvements to its working conditions – including pay rises, 15 days of paid time off (up from five) and 1 paid holidays (up from zero).
Talia Jane’s story also has a happy ending. She’s now a writer and labour activist and in 2016 was named as one of Business Insider's 100 most amazing and inspiring people in tech right now.
Remind your employees that social media is not the place to air grievances and of the consequences if they do. However, consider how you treat your staff. Social media means whistleblowing is now much easier and far-reaching. If there are any issues, is it best to address these issues before your reputation is called into repute?
6. When The Past Comes Back To Bite You
Alex McCammond had just been hired as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue in 2019 when a series of racist tweets against Asians she posted back in 2011 resurfaced. Although she deleted them and issued a public apology – and had worked on campaigns for marginalised voices - she was fired.
As The Independent reported, her posts included:
- “Outdone by Asian. #Whatsnew.”
- “Now Googling how to not wake up with swollen, Asian eyes…”
- “Give me a 2/10 on my chem problem, cross out all of my work and don’t explain what I did wrong… thanks a lot stupid Asian TA [teaching assistant]. You’re great,”
As Alex herself admitted: “My past tweets have overshadowed the work I’ve done to highlight the people and issues that I care about – issues that Teen Vogue has worked tirelessly to share with the world – and so Condé Nast and I have decided to part ways,” McCammond wrote.
You can’t escape your social media footprint – something employees should always be aware of. Tweets can be reshared long after they’ve been deleted and the risks of someone keeping evidence is more likely with senior executives. It’s therefore important that employers have a plan for what to do if they are embroiled in a social media storm.
7. A Missed Influencer Opportunity
“It’s like watching paint dry” is a go-to phrase for boring activities. So, if an employee can create viral videos about mixing paint – his employer’s product and accumulate an influencer status with 1.4million followers on TikTok you’d think he’d be fast-tracked to promotion. Not so for college student Tony Piloseno.
Sherwin Williams fired an employee who shared videos on how to mix paint, which had gone viral on TikTok. He’d even prepared a pitch deck on how they could reach a younger audience on social media.
As Buzzfeed News reported, the paint manufacturer fired him on the grounds of "gross misconduct" that included "wasting properties [and] facilities," and "seriously embarrass[ing] the company or its products”. One of these was mixing blueberries into the paint.
As Marketing Dive reports, the employee has now gone to work for a competitor, Florida Paints, who will supply the viral TikTok creator with materials to use in videos and work with him on developing a line of custom products.
Not every instance of gross misconduct is a bad thing – especially when an opportunity is there for the taking. If something goes viral you should stop and ask yourself why. What lessons can your marketing team learn?
Getting into a damaging situation means everybody loses in some way and there is no doubt that prevention is infinitely preferable to cure. Employees – and management, for that matter – need to be reminded that passion is good, but anger is not. You wouldn’t shout and scream at someone in the office, so don’t do it on social media. Things can get lost in translation on social media – which can all-too-easily go viral for all the wrong reasons.
A clear social media policy backed with solid training is the best way to avoid situations, such as these, from ever occurring in the first place. Your employees need to know your firm boundaries and they need guidance and real-life scenario training to ensure they fully understand the greyer areas – where social media etiquette and risks are less clear-cut. This way, they’re making an informed choice when they choose to post.