After this month’s presidential election, a woman from Turlock, California, named Denise Helms posted her displeasure with President Barack Obama’s reelection on Facebook. Her comment, which consisted of “Another 4 years of this n***er. Maybe he will get assassinated this term,” resulted in a visit from the Secret Service, who don’t take threats to the president, no matter how literal or hyperbolic they may be, lightly.
Putting politics aside, Ms. Helms’ Facebook comments were problematic for a reason she herself admitted to not understanding (this CNET article quoted her as saying, “I didn’t think [my comment] would be that big of a deal”). She, like what many other people who have Facebook or Twitter accounts tend to do, posted an opinion that was controversial in nature and got a lot of negative attention. And some of that attention came from her employer, Cold Stone Creamery, who fired her for making the racist remarks (though amusingly, Helms denies that she’s racist).
The ice cream chain tweeted “This employee is no longer w/the company & her disgraceful and completely unacceptable comments do not reflect our views.” From a brand reputation standpoint, Coldstone was being proactive. What Helms said had nothing to do with their business, but she is still an employee of theirs and they don’t want to risk anyone criticizing their company for her personal actions. As a business, you want to employ people whose values and work ethic best represent your brand, and if there’s a large discrepancy, you have the wrong person for the job.
Now, some people have varying opinions of this incident. The first one was, “Can Coldstone fire her for this?” In at-will employment states, yes. You can get fired for wearing a blue shirt when your employer prefers red. Obviously there are exceptions in the case of clear-cut discrimination, but generally in these environments you can get let go for some pretty wimpy reasons.
The second opinion is that Ms. Helms has the right to free speech, and she absolutely does. However, the Internet and social media in particular have fluffed up the “free speech” perk while often forgetting about the consequences of said free speech. For the most part you have the right to say what you want (excluding obvious instances where you could actually cause harm, like shouting “I have a bomb” in the middle of an airport), but the protection of free speech doesn’t extend to the social consequences of what you say.
Helms does have the right to be critical of the President of the United States, but Coldstone has the right to terminate her employment because of what she said. And some people have the right to label her an idiot and a racist, while others have the right to agree with her comments and support her opinion. Ultimately, however, you need to remember that what you say online leaves a permanent breadcrumb back to you, and that can cause problems with your employer. So whether you’ve taken to Facebook to complain about how your boss is a huge a**hole, post pictures of yourself hitting the clubs in skimpy outfits and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, or share controversial thoughts that polarize people, all of this can be used as ammunition against you later on and could hurt not only your current job situation, but future employment opportunities.
Exercise caution when engaging in social media or commenting online. Your personal brand is something you should be constantly mindful of, and being guarded is better than having to go on the defense and backpedal when you’re dealing with an unhappy employer or the unemployment line.