POLITICAL SPEECH AND SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE A TRICKY MIX
I had a great time last week speaking to a group of business leaders about the issue of employee political speech. What can and should an employer do when an employee speaks out on a hot button political issue? This issue can range from the rich and famous (see the NFL and our President’s comments) to less famous, employees who nonetheless cause a stir (see James Damore, the Google engineer whose memo about Google’s “echo chamber” set off an online firestorm). But in these divided days, it seems employers are increasingly faced with tough calls about what to do with outspoken employees.
The most recent firing involves Hayley Geftman-Gold, formerly a vice president and senior legal counsel at CBS in New York. This past Monday, Ms. Geftman-Gold wrote about the Las Vegas shooting on her Facebook page, noting that she was “not even sympathetic bc country music fans are often republican gun toters.” CBS fired her that day, contending she “violated the standards of our company.”
I don’t know Ms. Geftman-Gold, and I don’t really like to pass judgment. But it’s hard to blame CBS for the decision. This seems like a pretty easy decision, or at least one that CBS would prevail on if it’s challenged.
But I do think the episode offers some lessons for employees who wish to speak out. First, know that your legal protections are limited. Some states protect employees from discipline for political activity, but those are in the minority. The National Labor Relations Act offers some protection, but only if the comments concern working conditions. That may overlap with political advocacy, but not here. And assuming you don’t work in the public sector, there’s no First Amendment protection.
So how to avoid the fate of the now former CBS employee? And, maybe more to the point, how to avoid that fate and still speak out? Here are some ideas.
- Know Your Employer’s Rules. Those may be written (see, e.g. the employee handbook) and unwritten (ask around). Does your employer allow any social media activity, and if so, are there any limits? This is probably good information to check before tweeting or posting.
- Avoid Emotional Reactions. I have a feeling Ms. Geftman-Gold was feeling a range of emotions when she heard about the massacre. I know I was. That may not be the best time to be active on social media. And if you are, know you may be more susceptible to an outburst. Think before you send.
- Avoid Stereotypes. It occurred to me several years ago that stereotyping is just a form of laziness. And the generalizations it spawns are so easily disproved, it makes the writer look stupid.
- Avoid casual meanness. Calling Republicans “Repugs” – apparently a combination of Republican and repugnant – is mean. Don’t go there. There is a difference between calling someone a “gun toting Neanderthal” and saying “I disagree with your position.” The latter at least allows a chance for some dialogue. The former, not so much.
- Avoid the anonymity of the Internet. Would you seriously look a survivor of the Las Vegas slaughter in the eye and say you’re “not even sympathetic”? If not, don’t do it online. It’s not really any different.
- Think about the bigger picture. I assume Ms. Geftman-Gold is pro-gun control, as am I. Does this post in any way advance that agenda? It’s already being used as a talking point to rail against the “liberal elite” who run the “fake media.” Do you really want to help that narrative?
Our hopes for civil dialogue are in danger of becoming as wistful as our hope for sensible gun control. But in either event, the job of turning our hopes into reality begins with each one of us.