Social Media and the Ethics of Blame

Why one professor believes employers should think twice before firing employees whose social media posts run afoul of public opinion.

Social Media and the Ethics of Blame

IN THE AGE of social media, one ill-advised post can make someone the subject of news headlines overnight. And once people post content on their social media feeds that spark public outrage—whether they’ve made a racially sensitive statement or uploaded an ill-advised image—all they can do is delete it, apologize, and try to move on.

Unfortunately, once messages are shared widely, an angry public does not easily forgive and forget—and, in some cases, could even call for the offending individuals to be fired from their jobs. But when people become targets of the public’s ire, is it ethical for their companies to respond by terminating their employment? Often, no, says Vikram R. Bhargava of Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business in California.

In a recent paper, Bhargava, an assistant professor of management, explores the “ethics of blame” in relation to several high-profile incidents of public outrage fueled by social media. In 2011, for example, a carpenter in Vancouver posted tweets seemingly in support of riots that occurred after the city’s hockey team lost the Stanley Cup Finals; his employer, a construction company, fired him the next day. In 2013, before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, a 30-year-old woman tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Public outrage built to a fever pitch during the flight’s duration, and the public relations firm for which she worked had terminated her employment by the time her plane landed.

Such firings might seem like reasonable reactions, especially when companies seek to quickly disassociate themselves from the negative backlash. But the PR firm from the example above went one step further, says Bhargava. It issued a public statement that read, “There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally.” That response made the woman a subject of blame. If the firm’s intent was to disassociate itself from the employee, says Bhargava, “coupling the firing with a condemnatory release would be dishonest and disingenuous.”

Even if an employee’s actions are blameworthy, firing can result in disproportionately negative outcomes, Bhargava writes. He offers a hypothetical example in which a woman on a train berates another passenger for no reason. In this case, no one would question the ethics of other passengers who intervene and blame her for her actions. However, Bhargava asks, “should passengers in adjacent train cars now cross over into the car … and proceed to blame her? When she exits onto the platform, should commuters waiting, the turnstile attendant, and custodial staff blame her as well? Once she leaves the station, she passes the honey-roasted peanut vendor, the halal food truck vendor, and several cab drivers waiting for passengers: Should they all blame her too?”

Most would call that level of blame excessive—and, yet, that is often the level of blame assigned to those whose social posts spark public uproar. When employers also assign blame through firing, people not only can lose their jobs, but also can find that their relationships, future work prospects, and even their personal safety are in jeopardy.

Because social media “has altered the ethical landscape,” firing an individual for poor off-duty conduct could be “an inappropriate act of blame,” Bhargava writes. He concludes that no matter how much an employer might believe firing is the right thing to do, it can often be “ethically unjustified.”

Download “Firm Responses to Mass Outrage: Technology, Blame, and Employment,” published online October 26, 2018, in the Journal of Business Ethics.