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Jemele Hill Controversy Provides Cautionary Tale for Employees

For the record, I wasn't offended by Jemele Hill's tweets about Donald Trump--not one bit. And for the record, her employer accepted her apology. So, that's done. The real issue, when it comes to posting opinions on social media, is that employees should be aware of how sharing their opinions can affect their employment.

Jemele Hill, ESPN

I believe that the damage of Jemele Hill's tweets about "45" were not what she said but how and where she said it. Hill, who is an employee of ESPN, flat-out called Donald Trump a white supremacist. There is no doubt that accusation can be easily leveled given his refusal to immediately condemn the actions of white supremacists whose actions led to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va. Hill's real problem, in this particular case, is that she shared that opinion on her ESPN-branded Twitter account.

I know this won't be a popular with those who support Hill but everyday employees like you and me should put ourselves in the shoes of our employers. While her supporters lashed out at ESPN for wanting to discipline her, what folks didn't seem to think about is that business leaders have responsibilities to their clients, customers, and stakeholders. These are diverse pools of people with differing opinions on many topics; and some of the most sensitive topics are social issues (including race and gender), politics, and faith. Instead of labeling these views "right" or "wrong," I implore employees to imagine what it would be like to have one of these clients--whose dollars support the business--come to you in a furor over an employee's social media post. Taking those dollars away could mean having to reduce your workforce.

It is important to me that you protect yourself. Here are some suggestions for employees who want to freely express their opinions on social media. By the way, this especially applies to employees who are associated with highly visible organizations.

Know your employer's social media policy. I can't stress the importance of this enough. Putting yourself in the shoes of the most senior executive leader of a company or organization, imagine how you would feel if you got an email from a large client--a dedicated member of the Republican Party--who saw a social media post from an employee who decided to attack the party using offensive language. On top of that, you have a great relationship with this client, both personally and professionally. What would you, as the leader, do?

Check out these excerpts of one company's social media policy:

"Social media gives us the opportunity to share knowledge, information and opinions with the broader community. However, it also carries risks. Be careful what you share and use good judgment in what you publish online. This includes social networks as well as your own website, blog or page. Our Social Media Policy applies to all...employees, contractors and consultants.

"When using social media:

  • Make it clear that your opinions, comments and other posts are yours and are not representative of our Company.

  • Use your personal email address rather than your Company email address in any of your posts, unless you are approved to use social media internally on our behalf.

  • Never post Company logos or trademarks for commercial use unless authorized by the Company to do so.

  • Never post confidential, proprietary or material nonpublic information about (our Company), our customers, patients, vendors or business partners.

  • If you see content online about (our Company) that you believe is inaccurate, contact Corporate Communications."

At the end of the day, leaders are responsible for protecting the identity and value of their organizations, which also extends to protecting the identity and value of all employees.

Make it clear that your opinions do not reflect the views of your employer. I express opinions on my social media platforms, so I use the "opinions are mine" disclaimer. This may sound familiar: "The views expressed on this program do not reflect the views of this television/radio station or its stakeholders." Yep, that protects the hosts and their guests. I was actually surprised that Hill and several other high-profile media personalities don't have that disclaimer on their social media profiles given some of their opinions. Employees should consider that this complicated Hill's situation since she aligns herself with her employer. The disclaimer is a another layer of protection you can add to your public commentary.

Create separate social media accounts. Some organizations encourage their employees to use social media as part of their work. That's not an issue as long as you stick to work-related content. Other organizations, such as school districts, discourage their employees from using social media. If you feel passionate about certain issues, however, I suggest you set up an incognito account.

Remind the public that your opinions are personal. This not the same as the third point. What I mean is use constant reminders throughout your posts. Using the magics words "I agree" or "I disagree" can keep you out of hot water. Also, be careful about claiming freedom of speech. You cross the line when your words endanger others among other things. According to the Newseum Institute, here are the types of speech not protected by the First Amendment:

  • Obscenity (the definition relies on context, but regular old porn is not considered obscene)

  • Fighting words

  • Defamation

  • Child pornography

  • Perjury

  • Blackmail

  • Incitement to imminent lawless action

  • True threats

  • Solicitations to commit crimes

  • Plagiarism of copyrighted material

Appeal to logic. Like most others on social media, I get the urge to respond to topics that grab my emotions. You have no idea how many times I have discarded tweets and how many podcast segments have gone unpublished when I checked my emotions at the door. In fact, it took me several days to write an opinion about Donald Trump's leadership on Medium because I wanted to do a critical analysis of his rhetoric without bringing politics into the conversation. Thoughtful people may not like your opinion but they'll have a hard time arguing with you if your views are based on reason and evidence.

Ultimately, you want to accomplish a couple of things. You want to express yourself freely and you want to protect your employment. And let's not get it twisted, you can say whatever you want, whenever you want. If your employment means anything to you, however, you can say what you want without having to look over your shoulder.


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