Think before you tweet

What will companies do if an employee's social media past comes back to bite them?

Hartley Sawyer as the
Elongated Man

I’m a bit of a superhero fanatic.

Ever since I was very young, I was obsessed with Superman. I reckon it was mostly because he could fly.   Talk about every kid’s dream – to be able to take a couple of steps then soar through the clouds?  Mesmerising.

Lately people have become more familiar with superheroes through the screen rather than the comic book. Now, movies have morphed into TV where multiple superheroes suit up each week for a new adventure.

One of the more successful superhero TV shows has been The Flash.  It’s finished its sixth season and shows no signs of slowing down.

That is, until it fired one of its cast members this week after ‘tweets’ he had posted eight years ago (before he was on the show and before the show had even premiered) emerged which included unsavoury remarks on issues such as racism and domestic violence.

It’s another aspect of the growing cancel culture that has the capacity to catch companies unaware. While many companies are conducting social media screenings of potential employees (a field that has its own landmines to contend with), the fact that there are now often thousands of tweets to trawl through for potentially problematic ponderings is too much for your average HR department.

It does create a conundrum for corporations though: if someone has written something toxic on social media in the past, how does that effect their employment viability today?

And, perhaps more relevant for a column such as this, how can corporate communicators find the right message?

The challenge

There seem to be two overriding factors when making decisions about the future employment of someone who has posted dodgy content on social media: company culture and public outcry.

I wrote earlier this week about the need for scapegoats when crises emerge.  So obviously the public outcry potential when an employee’s tweets resurface can’t be ignored.

The company culture question is quite different though.  This is because it’s something of a double-edged sword.

Pretty much every company today has statements of ethics and values.  Sometimes they are phrased in the negative (they won’t stand for racism, sexism etc) and other times in the positive (we are an inclusive workplace etc). Either way, it seeks to provide an objective measure as to how to assess the appropriateness of employee behaviour.  If an employee acts in a way that’s in contravention to these values, their employment is in jeopardy (see Folau, Israel).


The problem is, these values may apply neatly to behaviour in the present, but how do they apply if the person has poor behaviour in their past, but they have conducted themselves with integrity during their employment with a company?

Judging an employee’s character based on past mistakes is tricky territory because it removes any possibility of redemption and forgiveness.  It also potentially creates an impossible standard because, whether we like it or not, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has most likely said something inappropriate at some point in their lives.

The difficulty with social media is that there’s now a permanent an inerasable record which you never know when it will come back to bite you.  While someone may be forgiven for something said ‘vocally’ in the past, tweets act as a fluid moment in time.  Something you put on Twitter 8 years ago reads as something you posted just 8 hours ago. 

Where does that leave us?

So, what’s the lesson for communicators?  I reckon there are two things here.

  • Mentor younger employees.  Really get alongside them to let them know that social media is a dangerous game.  Anything they write or film will be around forever. 
  • Run simulations.  Make sure communicators are engaging with the C-suite to run ‘war games’ and simulations on old offensive tweets emerging and how will they handle such a crisis.

But, perhaps most importantly, think about your company’s values.  While having affirmative statements is positive, ask yourself whether there is any room in them for redemption or forgiveness?

Because as soon as we lose the capacity to forgive, none will have the strength to stand.