Social Media Risks: Our Latest Example…

By now you may have seen it, and some people probably even support it: the picture of a cyclist on the side of the road in Virginia, giving the middle finger to the Trump presidential motorcade as it whizzed by her.  

Little did that cyclist know, she would soon give Corporate America yet another lesson in the challenges of modern social media policy.

The woman, Juli Briskman, gained her fame because a news photographer snapped a picture of her obscene gesture on a Saturday afternoon. The photo quickly went viral. Briskman even posted it on her Facebook page for a while.

Come Monday morning, Briskman informed the HR department of her employer, Akima Corp. Neither the photo itself, nor Briskman’s posting of it on her Facebook page, made any reference to the company—but executives at the company, which does considerable business as a government contractor, didn’t like the message Briskman’s gesture sent regardless. On Tuesday they fired her.

As a question of policy and discipline, Akima is on stable ground. It had a social media policy, which Briskman violated. Virginia is an employment at-will state, which gives companies wide discretion to fire employees without specific cause. What’s more, political views do not put employees in a protected class akin to religion or race. Akima had everything in proper place to fire an employee for inappropriate behavior after hours.

So while Akima and Briskman will fade into history soon enough, compliance officers should consider larger lessons here about how social media affects corporate policy, conduct, and discipline.

First, prepare your Code of Conduct and policy manual. Yes, it’s legal to discipline an employee for behavior off the job that might reflect poorly on the business overall. It can also be wise and necessary. But disciplining an employee for an offense like Briskman’s—an offense rooted in her political views—is a delicate matter. A clear policy, that employees know and understand, can help the company with turbulence to come.

Second, turbulence will come. Briskman’s dismissal attracted a wave of media attention, from the Washington Post, CNBC, New York Times, and elsewhere. Briskman also accused Akima of political favoritism: another mid-level executive had been ranting on Facebook about “f—king libtards,” she claimed, and his Facebook page did clearly connect him to their employer Akima. But he was only told to remove the offending posts, where she was fired.

The challenge with social media is that everything is immediate; everything is widespread. Worse, everything is also documentable, in the sense that with a quick search on Google or Twitter, you can find three or four examples to support whatever case you want to make—which, for most people, is enough to convince them they are right. Then they will argue against you, loudly, and assume you are wrong.

In our polarized political age, that’s going to place enormous strains on corporate ethics and compliance functions. We will see more “whataboutism,” as employees accused of misconduct claim that you’re ignoring an equally egregious offense somewhere else. We’ll see more outside scrutiny of internal decisions. Even when a company is on sound legal and logical ground (which Akima was), that won’t lessen the ordeal of following through on decisions.

It’s a stressful situation, and one not likely to change any time soon. If you have the shortcut to master it, by all means— post it to Twitter.