Twitter: The public square of the 21st century will get you fired

Twitter: The public square of the 21st century will get you fired

Summary: There are grave consequences for behaving badly on social networks. Becoming unemployable may be the least of them.


This week, I wrote an article about how the handling of personal data in private industry, not the widespread surveillance programs of the NSA, is a far more pressing threat to infringing the privacy of the average citizen.

If you haven't managed to read the entire post, here's the crux of the entire thing:

I am concerned about how our online presence and day-to-day interaction on social networks could potentially influence our ability to be insured, to secure loans, et cetera, due to potential monitoring by the corporations we do business with and are responsible for life-changing decisions that are not under our direct control.

We should also expect and be fully aware of the fact that the social networks we participate on are monitored by employers. I personally know not to harass people nor represent myself or my employer in such a fashion that would have a negative impact on my employer, and thus could result in my termination.

Constant vigilance is going to have to be required in terms of always having to keep up our appearances and be on our best behavior. Big Brother isn't the government. It's your human resources department.

I have always been of the opinion that when it comes to using social networks or participating online in any fashion, there is one simple rule: Don't be stupid.

One would think that this is a very common-sensical thing, one as universally understood as the Ten Commandments, or even as fundamental as the actual Golden Rule itself, but perhaps we should have it etched in stone just so nobody forgets it.

Oh, wait. We don't chisel stuff into stone anymore, but we do have hashtags. Like #HasJustineLandedYet.

There are probably a zillion more thought pieces that go far more into the gory details of the story of what transpired on Friday, if you are actually interested, but basically, it happened like this:

Justine Sacco, a woman with only a few hundred Twitter followers, was employed as the head of Global Public Relations at IAC, a large internet content property holding company.

She decided before boarding a flight from London to South Africa to flippantly tweet something incredibly callous and racist that she almost certainly felt would have no personal consequences for her.

The tweet, which stayed up for the balance of the day because Sacco was out of communication on an aircraft, was soon noticed by a follower and then sent on a slow-news Friday before Christmas week to an editor of the online publication Valleywag.

It quickly spun out of control and spawned a day-long angry mob effect on Twitter that attracted gobs of negative attention for her employer, which then distanced itself from Sacco's statements as it went into crisis control.

When Sacco finally landed in Johannesburg, she found out that not only had her employment been terminated by IAC, but people were also waiting for her so they could record her reactions.

She promptly deleted her Twitter account, as well as her Facebook page. But the damage had been done.

Deserved or not, the embarrassment for this young woman has been devastating.

Justine Sacco has learned a horrible and painful lesson. One that she probably wouldn't have had to if she had understood one key thing, which is that on Twitter, there is no such thing as "not being noticed".

Even if you only have a few friends or followers, it is likely that a flippant politically incorrect joke or statement will get amplified.

Constant vigilance is going to have to be required in terms of always having to keep up our appearances and be on our best behavior. Big Brother isn't the government. It's your human resources department.

Ms Sacco probably had a much higher chance than the average person of being noticed, simply because she had a high-profile job in public relations.

The stupidity amplification factor here had perfect storm potential.

I'm not suggesting that all of us harbor racist thoughts, but every single one of us has the potential to be a Justine Sacco if we aren't careful.

The very same politically incorrect stuff that we say to friends and others in close company without any thoughts of consequences attached to them can unravel our lives if we utter the same things in a social media setting.

And yes, we all are guilty of saying politically incorrect things to people in close company, myself included. We're human beings. Some of us drink alcohol, our judgment can become impaired, and we often get too comfortable with our surroundings.

Twitter and services like it are powerful tools for companies and individuals to promote their brand, but at the same time, it's also a very powerful tool to throw your brand in the toilet if you say something stupid.

Here's the litmus test of whether you should say something on Twitter: If you aren't comfortable screaming it out at the top of your lungs in the middle of a crowded public square, or at the very least, saying it during a toast during the middle of a holiday cocktail party at the office, when every single member of upper management and all your co-workers are staring right at you, then don't tweet it.

Your employers are watching your tweets. Your future and potential employers are going through your old tweets. Members of your family and extended social groups are also watching your tweets.

Everyone is watching your tweets. Got it? Good.

Losing your job as a result of saying something on Twitter is awful. It's quite another thing becoming permanently unemployable in your field because you've now got a stigma attached to you. Sacco's tweet was read by millions of people.

Additionally, as in Sacco's case, you may end up with a semi-permanent record of your transgressions that is now stored on search engines if it really gets amplified, as well as the huge embarrassment to your family and being shunned from real-life social groups for saying dumb and flippant stuff.

I should also probably remind you that your employer is almost certainly watching your Facebook posts, as well as your Google+ stuff and your Instagrams and whatever else you have, depending on your visibility to customers, partners, et cetera.

With these services, you have the ability (to some extent) to keep status updates within groups of your choosing, but the risk is still there.

So you should be locking down profiles as much as you can, and if you have any doubts about a status update and how it could potentially end up getting copied outside of the circles it is intended for, and then leaked where you don't want it to leak, then don't post it in the first place.

Happy holidays, everyone. And don't be stupid.

Topics: Social Enterprise, After Hours


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • We are all Human

    I think for most of us, the more we put ourselves out into the public, the more chances of faux pas we create for ourselves. How many of us can remain mindful and vigilant all the time?

    So probably a good idea not to use social media as a habit in the first place.
    • The problem is...

      being an online "ghost" is a red flag for employers, as well.

      It may be one thing to be buried into anonymity if your name is "John Smith", and you can then guide your potential employers to online blogs you have written, videos you have created, etc.

      But with my name... I am the only one in the world. Literally. So my only options are to: (a) Not partake in the Internet at all (no Facebook, YouTube, Google, reviews on Amazon, etc), or (b) simply remain vigilant of what I do at all times, and realize it can't really be undone. And, at the very best, "damage control" would have to come in the form of being MORE active (in positive/productive ways) online to bury the negative aspects that have come to light.

      But what is most disturbing to me is the mentality that you "can't make a mistake." People make mistakes -- some bigger than others, but the vast majority of those mistakes should be forgivable and people should be allowed to learn from them, to grow, and to move on with their lives. Just like we have been doing since the dawn of time... and making those mistakes and learning from them is the only way we've gotten this far. If we become a perfectionist culture that is fearful of every slip-up, we are not going to take even the most worthy and valuable risks...
    • Watch your comments too!

      Twitter and Facebook aren't the only ways to be social online. Post-article comments are social too, and I'm constantly amazed at how arrogant and rude many people can be in comments.

      What is it about semi-anonymity that cause people to talk like everyone with a viewpoint different from their own is an idiot?

      Tolerance and tact are signs of maturity.

      It takes an astonishing lack of self awareness to fail to see that rudeness undermines credibility and diminishes whatever point people they think they are making.

      Certainly I would not want to hire a person whose is so easily disposed to treat people like this.
  • Guidelines

    Sing like no-one's listening, dance like no-one's watching, but tweet like you're in court.
    • Love it

      ^Now that's funny right there.
    • Very well said, docklobster!

      Sweet and short! The best line of the day!
    • Well done!

      Perfectly stated.
  • pseudonym

    I am a little bit multi-faced on social media, when use it, I assume an identity for the purpose. While I'm sure it's possible to track it all back to me, I'm equally sure It's probably not worth all that effort.And even if they did, it's nothing that would make my grandmother blush.
  • Grabbing at Straws

    What's next, an article by Perlow letting us know that soil is composed of minerals and organic matter?
  • Mixed feelings about this one

    On one hand, the public square is becoming increasingly less segmented, which I think is a good thing, as it makes it harder for public figures (especially politicians) so say one thing to one part of their audience and something contradictory to another part; or to throw red meat at one part of the audience that another part would be offended by if it was paying attention (I can think of several recent examples).

    But after all these millenia we're still in the business of persecuting unpopular opinions, and that is a bad thing, because people have the right to think what they think and to express those thoughts to others, even if they're flat out wrong, and even if others think those thoughts are offensive or dangerous.

    If you disagree with someone, then argue with him (or not), but don't try to punish him. The next time, it might be you.
    John L. Ries
    • It's worse

      She was hounded for poor taste in her humor, NOT because of some sort of fundamental belief. If she truly believed what she posted, I'd think you'd have seen her attempt to defend her position in some fashion. Instead, she was trying to be outrageous and use some inappropriate humor, and the world decided that wasn't right. To me, that's far worse than being hounded for your opinion.
      • Agreed

        It was perfectly fine for Sen. Trent Lott to think that the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond had been elected President in 1948 (personally, I think the right man won). The problem was that he said it and then tried to play it down (thereby dishonoring the man he had been trying to honor) instead of forthrightly explaining why.

        And the problem with the "macaca" incident was less that George Allen was a racist (and I don't know if he is one or not), but that he was abusive, rude, and very deliberately trying to project one image to his base and another to the general public.

        It's one thing to be a heretic. It's quite another to be rude or hypocritical.
        John L. Ries
  • A head of Global Public Relations

    can not behave in public??? In this case she does not fit the job.
    • Agreed

      The comment was incredibly callous and rude. She should have been fired for it.
      John L. Ries
    • Gotta wonder why

      She was hired for such a job. She is clearly not mature enough for such responsibilities.
  • The thought police

    Read 1984 and get a clue , you are telling the world what you think, This should be covered under IPR but of course the govt cant make money from you directly so they will download your entire data file and see how you feel, how you will vote , or if your a person who will go along to get along. good ole boy bull , get rid of both of the sites and stop the NSA spying on us citizen and start spying on political figure heads ripping off the country,
    • The right to be rude?

      The right to get a rise out of people without the risk of being punched in the nose? At least shock jocks do it under their own names and risk being fired occasionally.

      In the old days, gentlemen had to be careful about what they said because it might get them challenged to a duel. I don't recommend going back to that, but it is part of why "polite society" is polite.
      John L. Ries
    • Sharp turn there

      You're spinning this off to someplace the article never went. This is not about the government, the NSA, politicians, or anything of the sort. Rather an incredibly poor choice made by a person that should have known better and the consequences that brought. It's sort of a free speech thing, but you have to understand that while you can say anything you want you need to be ready to face the consequences for it.
  • It's Called 'Social' for a Reason

    Excellent discussion, Jason, that mirrors what I tell my up-and-coming PR pros/undergraduate Communication majors at #CurryCollege every day..."Don't be stupid...What you say on a social media platform is out there for potentially tens...or hundreds...of thousands to see and respond/react to."

    The only thing I would argue against in this whole fiasco is that of others calling this individual a "PR pro." She's not, and her idiotic action is clear evidence. She's one reason the Public Relations Society of America has, as one of its ethical guidelines, "enhancing the profession."

    She didn't "enhance." She embarrassed every one of us who devote ourselves to acting in the public's interest and conducting ourselves accordingly.

    'Nuff said.
    Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA
    • What I don't understand is this:

      Why even make a personal tweet from an account you use for official / business purposes, as well?

      I think people need to be educated on what PR actually is and how it works. It's not "who you are" (that's a very private, intimate relation), but who you want the public to see. It's not you naked -- it's the wardrobe you decide to wear to face the world.

      I think there is a time and place for intimacy, for baring yourself -- but perhaps the beauty of the internet is that, since it is such a risky thing to do (and nobody wants a "flasher", psychological or otherwise), private and/or anonymous profiles (not the professional face you use for the world) are best. It's what I do with my YouTube videos -- all of the ones under my official name are business/professional. ALL of them. Any single personal video goes up under a different name (and none of them have anything as risque as race/sex/politics, either... )