Social media have drastically affected employer-employee relationships by providing employers with an effective and simple-to-use surveillance tool. Jacobson and Gruzd (2020) defined such use of social media as cyber vetting: a process of screening potential or active employees’ social media in order to analyze their digital footprint. Therefore, social media postings may be used as a valid reason for involuntary termination. According to Taylor Jr. (2020), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) might protect employees only if their posts discuss working conditions, such as benefits and payments. Otherwise, the companies have a right to perceive any potentially controversial social media post as a contract violation since employees are expected to know corporate policies on social media use (Parker et al., 2019). The following four cases provide examples of how such involuntary terminations may be justified from the business, philosophical, and CST perspectives.
Case 1: York University faculty member fired after sharing Anti-Semitic posts on Facebook
- In 2016 York University (Ontario, Canada) fired Nikolaos Balaskas, a laboratory technologist in the department of physics and astronomy;
- Balaskas’ termination was based on an investigation of allegedly anti-Semitic posts shared on his public Facebook page;
- In his words, Balaskas tried to “promote and bring awareness of historical circumstances” (Miller, 2016).
Case 2: IAC PR executive fired over a racist tweet about AIDS
- In 2013, Justine Sacco, a communications director of the InterActive Corp, left an offensive joke on Twitter before boarding a plane to South Africa;
- IAC promptly dismissed Sacco for “hateful statements” (Pilkington, 2013).
Case 3: HSBC employees posted ISIS-style mock execution on Instagram
- In 2015 a group of HSBC bankers posted a video of ISIS-style mock execution on Instagram;
- All involved individuals were fired as soon as the news about the video reached HSBC;
- In addition, HSBC issued an apology for any offense caused (Vale, 2015).
Case 4: NASCAR team fires a future Cup Series champion for a racial slur
- In April 2020, Kyle Larson, an elite NASCAR driver for the Chip Ganassi Racing team, said a racial slur during the IRacing event (ESPN, 2020);
- Larson was suspended by NASCAR and eventually fired from Chip Ganassi Racing;
- Sponsors are still reluctant to sign contracts with Larson despite his championship-winning return in the 2021 season.
Business Ethics Perspective
Modern-day businesses pay significant attention to the brands and values that they represent. In this regard, any online controversy can damage a brand’s reputation if prompt action is not taken. Therefore, official statements on firing employees due to their social media behavior clearly distinguish between corporate ethics and a particular employee’s actions. For example, York University stated that Balaskas’ anti-Semitic posts had an adverse impact on the school’s reputation (Miller, 2016). The HSBC spokesman called the controversial video “abhorrent” and asked for forgiveness to prevent further reputational damage (Vale, 2015). Finally, NASCAR stated that Kyle Larson’s words could not be tolerated since “NASCAR has made diversity and inclusion a priority” (ESPN, 2020). In this regard, business ethics make offenders’ status irrelevant, and even the high-position employees who have had successful careers before had to be fired for the sake of ethics and reputation.
Philosophical Ethics: Utilitarianism
It is possible to claim that the utilitarian element was common in all presented cases. The companies had to choose between avoiding harsh disciplinarian action and immediately firing offenders. The companies preferred strict measures to protect the controversial employees in all four cases. Utilitarianism explains this position since protecting an offender would potentially cause customer aversion to the company’s product. On the other hand, firing an obvious offender also brings satisfaction to the public, which justifies this action ethically.
Philosophical Ethics: Kantian Deontology
In regard to Kantian Deontology, terminating an employee who made an offensive post serves as a means of showing the company’s respect to the offended groups. In addition, such an action aligns with the Kantian idea of promoting justice since an offender gets punished instantly. In all four cases, the offenders lost their jobs as soon as the information reached their employers. Overall, firing a controversial employee for inappropriate online conduct confirms that the company treats its customer base respectfully and does not consider it only a source of profit.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) Perspective
CST regards rights, responsibilities, dignity, and solidarity as key foundations of a just and peaceful society. As such, any employee who makes offensive posts on social media acts irresponsibly and violates other people’s dignity. Therefore, firing that employee becomes a company’s way of showing solidarity with the offended communities. Furthermore, such an action does not violate an employee’s freedom of speech. In this regard, involuntary termination on the grounds of inappropriate online conduct does not contradict the rights of workers championed by the CST.
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Vale, P. (2015). HSBC bankers fired after filming mock ISIS execution. HuffPost UK. Web.