The internet wants you to lose your job

What you say online reflects on your company.
What you say online reflects on your company.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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When Anjali Ramkissoon unleashed a vicious tirade against an Uber driver on Jan. 17, she was an anonymous neurology resident living in Miami. Just a few days later, she was appearing on “Good Morning America” to apologize for what she called the “biggest mistake” of her life.

The attack, in which Ramkissoon hit, kicked and cursed at the driver, was captured on a viral YouTube video recorded by a bystander. The footage so embarrassed her medical school that it released a tweet saying she was no longer affiliated with the program. Meanwhile, her employer, the Jackson Health System, has placed her on administrative leave and removed her from all clinical duties pending an investigation.

In a world without cell phone cameras and social media, Ramkisson might well still be in good standing with her school and employer. (The driver declined to press charges.) Instead, the entire internet bore witness to her bad behavior, with inevitable consequences for her career. Her story offers an opportunity to consider how the digital age has made workers ever-more responsible for upholding their employers’ reputations—even when workers are off duty.

It’s long been true that the higher workers rise in the corporate hierarchy, the bigger a reputational risk they pose to their companies. Former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, for example, resigned under pressure in the firestorm surrounding his opposition to gay marriage. Eich had made a personal donation in favor of Proposition 8 six years before his appointment, but had endorsed inclusiveness for LGBT individuals upon becoming CEO. Still, his critics argued that having a gay-marriage opponent as such a prominent representative was bad for the company, both symbolically and operationally. After only nine days on the job, Eich resigned and shut down his Twitter account.

Thanks to the internet’s tendency to call out bad behavior, lower-level employees are now held to the same standard. An employer’s interest in a social-media snafu is quite obvious when a restaurant employee takes a photo of, shall we say, the mishandling of food, or when a daycare worker posts about her hatred of children. But nowadays, even an employee’s personal misbehavior or misguided Facebook rant can blow back against an employer.

Take the case of Indiana hairdresser Holly Jones, who lost her job when she gained internet notoriety for complaining online about a “junkie” who’d overdosed and ruined her New Year’s Eve at a bar. The “junkie” turned out to be an older woman who’d had a heart attack.

An even more well-known example is that of Justine Sacco, a public relations representative who tweeted on her way to Africa: “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco was then serving as senior director of communications for IAC. The tweet got her fired almost immediately. That might seem hasty, but IAC was aware that its name was being associated with Sacco’s tweet. Until the company severed ties, her misstep was also its problem.

Some firings are more justifiable than others. Regardless, social-media pariahs have almost nowhere to turn in terms of legal protections. Most workers are hired on an “at-will” basis, meaning that they can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. (That is, as long as the reason is not specifically prohibited one—such as racial discrimination or whistleblower retaliation.)

Employees who belong to a union are a special case. Employers then generally need to meet a “just cause” standard to fire staffers, and the employee can take the employer’s decision to arbitration. Arbitrators are more likely to let the employee off the hook—so long as the misbehavior was unrelated to their jobs and the reputational consequences were temporary. (As this article puts it: “The general rule among arbitrators is as one might expect: what employees do on their own time is their own business.”) Of course, less than 7% of private-sector workers belong to unions.

Mark Twain once observed, “We ought never to do wrong when people are looking.” These days, a lot more people are looking. That means, for better or worse, we now occupy a world in which everything we say or do—online and off, in the office or at the bar—may affect our job security.