Shortly after President Joe Biden spoke of uniting the country last week, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center think tank quipped on Twitter, “If Biden really wanted unity, he’d lynch Mike Pence.” The joke — in case it doesn’t sound funny to you — being that Pence is now hated on both the left and the right.
Wilkinson quickly lost his job. And the reaction was predictable: Fox News reported the tweet at face value. Reason magazine condemned “cancel culture.” And other public intellectuals on Twitter fretted that if it can happen to Wilkinson, “it can happen to any of us.”
That’s right. It can happen to anyone … who jokes on Twitter about lynching the vice president.
This isn’t about free speech or cancel culture. It’s about employability. People who think they have unlimited free speech on social media are deluding themselves about how companies work. Just as you can’t joke about a bomb in an airport without expecting to hear from the Transportation Security Administration, you can’t say certain things on Twitter without expecting a call from HR.
Employers have made this clear for at least the past 10 years. Social media can be dangerous for those of us who rely on a paycheck. Google “waitress fired for Facebook” and you will find stories from Florida, North Carolina and Ohio about servers getting axed for complaining about rude customers or stingy tips.
Sarcasm ratchets up the danger. This has been clear since at least 2014, when communications executive Justine Sacco lost her job after tweeting “Going to Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS!” — a comment she insisted was sarcastic.
When I tweet something even moderately controversial, I ask myself if it will cause me to lose my job — and consequently health insurance and the ability to pay my mortgage. Perhaps online caution is a generational thing. Social media predates my arrival into the workforce; as soon as I had a cubicle, I was friending bosses and colleagues on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This means coworkers get a peek at my personal life, and also that I self-censor, a lot. And I’m an oversharing millennial; Gen Z often eschews Facebook altogether and keeps other accounts private.
It’s not that different from other kinds of self-questioning at work, especially among employees outside the dominant demographic: How direct can I be? Will someone take offense if I say this? Is this too personal?
More than a century ago, the essayist John Jay Chapman described the link between employability and self-censorship in a commencement address to the graduating class of Hobart College. It’s short — you should read the whole thing — but here’s the crucial point: “Try to raise a voice from here to Albany and watch what comes forward to shut off the sound. It is not a German sergeant, nor a Russian officer of the precinct. It is a note from a friend of your father’s, offering you a place in his office. This is your warning from the secret police.”
Chapman goes on to advise the graduates to “make a bonfire of your reputations, and a close enemy of most men who would wish you well … Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged.” It’s a rousing, backbone-strengthening defense of bold speech. Often, when I’m deciding to speak up about something important, I’ve re-read these lines for courage. And often I’ve wondered how Chapman paid his bills.
But the risk is worth it only when you’ve got something important to say. It’s one thing to speak up against unsafe working conditions, inadequate pay, discrimination. It’s another to risk your reputation for an online bon mot.
Firing people for social media posts, whether they are waitresses or writers, isn’t fair because it isn’t proportional. The reputational damage to a company from an employee who tweets tastelessly is small; the reputational damage to the worker from getting publicly sacked is large. And companies do sometimes terminate people for imaginary infractions, such as when Sherwin Williams fired an employee last year for making unauthorized — and wildly popular — paint-mixing videos on TikTok. (He soon had offers from several competitors.)
Employees have always had to watch their words on the job. Professionalism is a mask, and online personas aren’t people’s “real selves,” either. Both at the office and online, we’re expected to put on our most palatable faces. The safest motto is: Tweet in haste; repent at leisure.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion.
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