Archive for November, 2012

Facebook Assassination Comment – Cause to Fire?

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

As many have noted, this year’s election cycle has brought new levels of fiery commentary. On Election night, Donald Trump blasted out a series of venomous (and now deleted) tweets that claimed that Barack Obama’s re-election was a “total sham and travesty” and urged his followers to march on Washington. NBC’s chief news anchor Brian Williams responded to Trump’s remarks by saying that Trump had “driven well past the last exit to relevance and veered into something closer to irresponsible”. Also on NBC’s election coverage, Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” made a comment about Hurricane Sandy being good for politics. The following night on “Hardball”, Matthews apologized for his remarks, and later in the hour, one of Matthew’s guests, Bill Maher, wondered aloud why NBC still hung on to Trump.

In fact, Trump, Williams and Matthews could have all been fired for their remarks. However, all of them are in powerful positions that tacitly allow such commentary with little threat of landing them in the unemployment line. However, another tirade on social media has had precisely that effect. Last week, Denise Helms a 22-year old from Turlock, California sent out a private Facebook message with a racist remark and then said “maybe he will get assassinated this term”. A recipient of the message copied it to Twitter, it went viral, and Ms. Helms was fired from her job at Cold Stone Creamery. There are many sides to this issue (the unfair disparity between job classes, the extreme nature of Helms’ remarks, and the role of social media in political campaigns) but let’s examine it from the standpoint of HR.

Right now, Ms. Helms is in a heap of trouble. The Secret Service is currently investigating her, her friends, family, and her Facebook and Twitter followers, all in an effort to ensure that no one that Ms. Helms knows is trying to act out her morbid assassination fantasy. And since making death threats against an elected official is a felony (and a lawyer is tasked with determining her intent), she could well be incarcerated, even if there are no nefarious connections. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Suppose that her comments were just an opinion that weren’t designed to be read by anyone but her friends (true, the opinions are vile, but that’s not treason in and of itself). Should Cold Stone Creamery have discharged her had they known even if the message had remained private?  Once Helms’ remarks became public, she became a walking liability. Had she stayed employed, Cold Stone could have been the center of a political firestorm complete with picket lines and nationwide boycotts.   And if the last two elections have taught us anything, it is that protestors know how to organize political campaigns!

Now consider what happens if and when Ms. Helms’ troubles die down. She could have a difficult time finding a new job. Cold Stone may have dodged the bullet on this one, but whoever hires Ms. Helms next could open themselves up to the same trouble. Even if she is acquitted (and who would say that she is truly innocent, even if she claimed to not understand why her comments caused such a furor?), she is likely to have the same experience—albeit on a much smaller scale—as O.J. Simpson. These comments could follow Helms for the rest of her life, and I suspect that few will entertain any of her excuses or rationales. Her hope of further employment could be if she finds a hiring manager with a short memory. And the more attention this issue gets, the less likely it is for that scenario.

Ms. Helms’ case could well become a “send a message” moment. With its combination of a racist epithet and a mere mention of the assassination of a sitting President, her message reinstates the debate for responsible freedom of speech especially in the social media age.  Helms’ words showed utter disrespect for a democratically elected chief executive and attacked the very foundations of our government. Unfortunately, this sort of rabble goes on in both sides of the political debate, and few are punished for their words. But no matter what happens within the legal process, companies might consider steering clear of reckless individuals, those who are lacking in good judgment and common sense. And those whose voices are transmitted to millions (Trump, Williams, Matthews, et. al.) could set a good example by toning down the rhetoric.  – Thomas Cunniffe

What are your thoughts?