July 14, 2016
When social media networks first became popular a decade ago, employers scrambled to establish policies governing the use of such websites on company time and equipment.
But the termination of a Thomas Jefferson University Hospital employee for posting racially-charged comments on Facebook underscores an ongoing challenge faced by employers. What reflection do the social media postings of employees cast upon the employer? And how are employees expected to conduct themselves online?
In a profanity-laced Facebook post, Diane Amoratis called recent Black Lives Matter protests "disgraceful" and praised the work of police officers who oversaw the demonstrations. She concluded her racially-charged post by writing "RAISE YOUR KIDS TO BE PRODUCTIVE CITIZENS!!!! I am sick and tired of all this bulls--- with the black people!!"
The post circulated throughout social media, drew response from across the nation, and eventually cost Amoratis her job. Jefferson Chief Human Resources Officer Jeffrey Stevens released a statement Tuesday noting Jefferson's commitment to inclusion and urging employees to "be mindful of our conduct and avoid egregious, hateful language and behaviors that reflect on Jefferson as uncaring."
"Our social media practices ... aren't severed from us. We leave digital footprints. People can find your thoughts and beliefs based on your social media platforms." – Angie Corbo, Widener professor
The termination is hardly unique. ESPN fired former Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling earlier this year for offensive social media postings.
"If you work for UPS, you're not going to go into a bar and get drunk in your UPS uniform," said Kathleen Davis, an assistant professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business. "We call that off-duty conduct. While you've got the uniform on, you're clearly identifiable as a postal carrier.
"When we come to social media, it's not so easy. It's my own time and free speech and all of that."
Not knowing the details of Amoratis' termination, Davis, a lawyer and an arbitrator, commented generally. Davis emphasized that she found such racially-charged remarks offensive. But she also stressed that employees must be given clear policies and informed of the consequences for breaking them.
"It can't just be an issue of 'Are you going to get fired for what you put on social media,'" Davis said. "Just cause is all about, 'Do you know what the rules are?'"
Davis pointed to an arbitration case she heard decades ago in which a bartender had been fired for sexually harassing a cocktail waitress. The bartender had been warned multiple times beforehand, but continued to harass the waitress. The company fired him, a decision Davis upheld.
"All those ducks were in a row," Davis said. "I didn't put him back to work. The policy was there. He had been warned. She had reported him a couple times."
According to the statement issued by Stevens, Jefferson followed its "established policies and procedures" to fire Amoratis. But such highly-publicized cases can send employers scrambling to adopt policies, Davis said.
In the Philadelphia region, Widener University has been developing social media policies for both students and employees.
Angie Corbo, a communications studies professor at the university, is among the group tasked with creating its social media policies. The group's ideas on what social media issues should be explicitly outlined has varied, Corbo said. But given the widespread use of social media, it is important for an employer to set a tone of what is acceptable.
"If people of color are reading (Amoratis') post, they may have a hostile reaction," Corbo said. "It definitely will spill over to the work environment. I think employers need to keep all of that in mind."
"How do we know they're joking or how do we know this person is serious? Social media strips all that away." – Gordon Coonfield, Villanova professor
Corbo said training employees on the appropriate use of social media is important. People easily recognize the professionalism on sites like LinkedIn, but Facebook offers easy opportunities to rant on any subject. And such posts can quickly draw a lot of unintended attention.
"I think it's important to understand how employers are looking at the whole person and not the person who is sitting at the desk," Corbo said. "Our social media practices ... aren't severed from us. We leave digital footprints. People can find your thoughts and beliefs based on your social media platforms."
While social media sites might be a quick way to share a political opinion, they do not necessarily promote healthy modes of discussion.
"We tend to project (but) we think we're interacting with other people on social media," said Gordon Coonfield, a communications professor at Villanova University. "In a really limited sense, I suppose we are. But we're missing a lot of information that we would have if we're talking to one another face-to-face.
"How do we know they're joking or how do we know this person is serious? Social media strips all that away."
Many social media users are not seeking to engage in a political discussion that includes rational arguments and deliberations, Gordon said. Instead, they use social media as an outlet for emotions – and often in a very negative way.
Amoratis' post stood as an example.
"What's bad is not that someone is expressing a political position," Coonfield said. "It comes from a place of prejudice and stereotyping that suggest a deeper underlying attitude toward people of color. This is what is disturbing about this."