In its eight years of existence, Toronto’s BMO Field has become known as a refuge from workaday decorum—a place where soccer fans can let loose their animal subconscious, gulping beer and braying out their frustrations far from the disapproving eyes of colleagues and bosses. It was living up to that reputation two Sundays ago, when Shauna Hunt, a reporter with CityNews, dropped by the stadium’s southeast plaza to catch fans spilling out of a match between their beloved Toronto FC and the Houston Dynamo. The bacchanalia had ended with a 2-1 Toronto loss, but civil order was not yet in force and, as Hunt set up to interview a pair of fans, a drunk man with a goatee lurched into the frame and spat out an all-too-familiar slur: “F–k her right in the p—y.”
The phrase emerged two years ago from an Internet hoax, uttered by a prankster pretending to be a foul-mouthed TV reporter. Strangers began shouting it at female journalists doing live hits, and it spread like a contagion from the sewers of the web. Hunt, a hard-news veteran, says she’d heard it about 10 times that day, and she decided on the spot she was done ignoring it. With the camera rolling, she rounded on a group of leering, glassy-eyed onlookers who’d been waiting gleefully for the scene to unfold. The speaker had drifted away, but two of his friends, astonishingly, stuck around to defend the insult: “I think it’s quite substantial,” smirked one, while the other—later revealed to be a young network engineer named Shawn Simoes—raved that “It’s f–king awesome!” adding: “You’re lucky there’s not a f–king vibrator in your ear!”—a reference to instances in which “FHRITP” practitioners have brought along sex toys as props.
Within hours of CityNews posting the footage on its website, the clip had gone viral and the men were bobbing in a sea of social-media revulsion. “Cretin,” “jerk,” and “asshole” counted among the milder labels applied by their YouTube jury, which, by press time, numbered around 4.4 million. The initial reaction on Monday night could be described as generalized outrage, punctuated by pity for Hunt. But the ritual shaming—familiar now from a slew of mass denunciations on Twitter—soon took a more personal turn. Shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday, several tweeters identified Simoes by name and outed him as an employee of Hydro One, Ontario’s provincial power utility. A few tagged their posts with Hydro’s Twitter address, demanding the Crown corporation take action, while others dug up his annual salary, $107,000, from the province’s sunshine list. Reporters began seeking comment from Hydro One and, like that—less than 24 hours after he appeared on screen—Simoes paid the price for his misadventure. Hydro One announced it was sacking him.
On one level, this outcome was inevitable. The FHRITP trend has taken hold at a time of renewed concern about sexual harassment. If his bosses had seen his performance on the evening news, rather than learning about it through Twitter, Simoes might have been in trouble anyway. And there is no shortage of observers who cheered at Simoes getting his comeuppance.
But his fate has also stirred heated debate over how employers wary of brand damage through social media are delving ever deeper into the personal spheres of their workers, demanding that even low-level employees tailor private communications and off-hours behaviour to uphold the corporate image. Gone are the days when only misbehaving senior executives were seen as prominent enough to tarnish a firm’s image. Twitter or YouTube can elevate a previously faceless worker to infamy within a matter of hours, or even minutes, with implications they never considered. Recall the numerous people fired from their jobs after they were caught on camera looting during Vancouver’s 2011 Stanley Cup riot.
Couple that with a fast-encroaching corporate culture, in which employers view workers as full-time brand ambassadors, and life for almost all employees could be seen as an endless sequence of career hazards. For every mindless remark made over a pub table, there’s a smartphone nearby to videotape it. For every ill-considered tweet, there’s an army of outraged recipients ready to flip it to the boss.
The result, says Howard Levitt, a Toronto-based employment lawyer, is “a whole new category of cause” that can cost an everyday labourer his job as surely as it can, say, Jian Ghomeshi, the once-celebrated CBC host fired amid accusations that he’d sexually assaulted several women. “The Ghomeshi story certainly raised public awareness that what you do at home, even in the privacy of your bedroom, could be cause for discharge,” says Levitt, who has followed the Simoes case closely. “But Ghomeshi was a star. What’s riveting about this case is that the guy’s an ordinary schlub. A lot of people will be looking at him and thinking, ‘My god, that could be me.’ ”
To be sure, anyone who thinks his bosses have no interest in his off-hours acts and opinions must have slept through the social media revolution. Simoes and the Stanley Cup rioters stand within a long continuum of sacrificial firings driven by online outrage, from Lindsey Stone, the 32-year-old who lost her job helping disabled adults because of a Facebook photo mocking the “Silence and Respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery (she posed miming a scream while holding up her middle finger); to Alicia Ann Lynch, a 22-year-old who dressed for Halloween as a Boston Marathon bombing victim, complete with running gear and blood-streaked legs.
Some cases are no-brainers, when viewed from either side of the employee-management divide. In 2007, EV Logistics, a dry-goods warehouse in Langley, B.C., terminated a 22-year-old worker after discovering he wrote a blog extolling Hitler, the SS and the KKK. The man’s webpage was strewn with racist slurs against South Asians, and included fantasies of mass murder and extermination. To top it off, it included a photo of him standing in front of the EV Logistics warehouse.
But other cases have highlighted the fine line between brand damage and corporate oversensitivity, raising the question of whether public outrage alone, and a few days of embarrassment, justifies showing a worker the door. One is that of Justine Sacco, a former corporate communications director with IAC, a U.S. media and Internet giant, who, in 2013, tweeted an ill-conceived joke before boarding a flight from New York to Cape Town, South Africa. “Going to Africa,” it read. “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco’s ham-fisted attempt to poke fun at white privilege triggered a paroxysm of Twitter outrage. “@JustineSacco bitch get fired,” one message read. Her haters actually tracked her 11-hour flight in gleeful anticipation of her landing—#HasJustineLanded began trending worldwide—and, not long after she disembarked in Cape Town, she learned she had indeed been sacked.
Sacco believes her punishment simply didn’t fit the crime. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal,” she told Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book that came out in February. But intent didn’t matter to her company; what counted was the response.
IAC could at least argue that someone in her position should have noticed the chasm between the intended meaning of her tweet and its actual wording. That was not the case with Connor Mcilvenna, a 21-year-old who watched the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot without participating, yet posted photos of, and appreciative comments about, the wreckage on his Facebook page. About 100 people who saw Mcilvenna’s comments fired off angry emails to his bosses at RiteTech Construction of Delta, B.C., which Mcilvenna had identified on his Facebook page as his employer. Many commenters regarded him as nothing worse than a thoughtless rubber-necker. Within a week of the riot, though, Mcilvenna had been sacked from his job as a carpenter. “I didn’t want any affiliation toward my company with the things he said,” Justin Reitz, RiteTech’s owner, later said.
Rough justice? Maybe, but it’s by no means out of line with Canadian law. Judgments dating back 130 years have consistently upheld employers’ right to dismiss workers who, as one 1886 decision put it, do “anything prejudicial to the interests or reputation of the employer.” This principle harks back to a time when communities were smaller, we all knew who worked for whom, and the spectacle of, say, a drunken railyard worker could undermine confidence in the railway. But, if anything, the case law has since evolved to put greater onus on workers to keep their employers’ reputation front of mind. In 2005, a Superior Court justice in Guelph, Ont., upheld the right of a prominent machine manufacturer, Linamar Corp., to fire a worker who’d pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. That the man didn’t hold a prominent position with the company didn’t matter. Nor did the company’s failure to demonstrate actual harm to its reputation. The mere potential for harm, the court ruled, was sufficient grounds to fire him.
The spate of current incidents has unfolded at a time when employers are becoming more involved in workers’ personal lives. In the 1980s, leading management theorists advanced an “everyone wins” model of corporate culture, in which individuals could realize greater personal autonomy by adopting their employers’ goals and values as their own, while employers enjoyed greater profits and productivity. McDonald’s was considered the perfect example, with its bustling teams of polyester-clad workers and, over the next few decades, that notion took root in virtually every Western economy.
Today, says Mats Alvesson, a professor of organizational studies at Sweden’s Lund University, it’s as prevalent as ever, with companies attempting to manage what staff think and feel during off-hours with slogans such as, “Live the brand.” Work-issued computers and mobile phones, he adds, have made the task easier. “We live in a society where much more is transparent and easy to monitor.” And to some, there’s a sinister quality to this ideological drift. Hugh Willmott, a professor of management at City University London, has likened modern corporate values to those of the Party in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: characterizing the idea that workers can gain autonomy by melding their identities with their employers’ as textbook totalitarian “doublethink.”
Few managers, it goes without saying, like to think of themselves as Orwellian thought police, driving production by assimilating the identities of their workers. But, thanks to social media, and the overall connectivity of modern workplaces, brand protection is undeniably a growing piece of relations with employees. Companies increasingly want to leverage employees’ social media profiles, encouraging them to promote their employers’ interests on Twitter and Facebook—platforms that encourage speed, wit and humour. The chance that one ill-framed joke, or one remark by an over-refreshed staffer, could blow their efforts sky-high seemed low risk for the reward.
As of this week, that may be changing. While Simoes’s image was zinging around cyberspace, Brenda Clark, chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association, was clipping news stories about the case to share with fellow board members—a reminder of how rapidly their jobs can be overtaken by an ill-advised remark. “If I were the HR director of an organization,” she says, “I’d go back and ask, ‘Have we reminded our team lately about our expectations around social media?’ You don’t want surprises. You don’t want an employee saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to behave poorly in public.’ ”
To short-circuit those scenarios, she notes, many major institutions and companies have introduced annual code-of-conduct courses—mandatory refreshers that include explicit warnings that employees represent the company at all times, and that failure to abide could result in dismissal. A few firms try to head off trouble by performing social media background checks on prospective employees. For the rest, says Clark, social media serves as a kind of sentinel, alerting them to negative public reaction and—if they’re unlucky—PR crises of the kind caused by Simoes. But that, she stresses, doesn’t mean they’re “up late at night, combing the ’net or going on Twitter to find out who’s speaking ill of us. If it comes to our attention, it’s incumbent on us to follow up.”
Sensational as the few recent cases have been, the real surprise may be that there aren’t more of them. Dedication to the corporate cause is spotty these days, says Denise Rousseau, professor of management at Carnegie Mellon University: A lot of employees are serving contracts or are hired out to serve clients. Still, she says, many sought-after workers tolerate the “live the brand” mentality because they see it as an opportunity. “As a professor at Carnegie Mellon, I’m aware that my actions might reflect on my school,” says Rousseau by way of example. “But I feel proud about that, not anxious.”
And companies attempting social-media damage control also run the risk that their moves will backﬁre, the most egregious example being SendGrid, the Colorado-based email delivery and management service at the centre of the Twitter-shaming scandal known as “Donglegate.” In March 2013, one of SendGrid’s employees, Adria Richards, tweeted photos of two men seated behind her at a programming conference, complaining that the pair were cracking lame sexual puns using technical argot like “dongles” and “forking.”
Richards never called for the men’s bosses to take action. But one was fired and, with that, both she and SendGrid became the targets of an epic Internet backlash. Richards endured a torrent of misogynist tweets, along with grotesquely graphic death threats. Her company’s site, meanwhile, was shut down temporarily by hostile hackers. Then, angry over the interruption, and shocked by the depth of vitriol coming its way, SendGrid did something no one expected: It turned around and fired Richards.
The move has gone down as one of the most cynical of the Internet era. SendGrid argued that, as a so-called “developer evangelist,” Richards was supposed to “unite the programming community,” not divide it. But critics accused the company of abandoning an employee who had stood for what’s right, and the case has come to symbolize the conundrum underlying many a Twitter-driven firing. Should disapproval—public or professional—be grounds to fire someone? Is there no opinion a worker can feel safe sharing? If every employer bows to social media pressure, won’t that send us into endless cycles of shaming and retribution?
Not likely, says Geoffrey Howard, a Vancouver-based lawyer who specializes in employment issues arising from connectivity in the workplace. Though Canadian courts have upheld the right of employers to protect their reputations, they must still meet a burden of proof that their reputations are under threat. “We can’t have a world where, just because a whole bunch of people don’t like you or something you’ve said, that becomes grounds for firing you,” he says. There must, for example, be a discernible connection between the misconduct and the potential damage to the brand. Hydro One, for instance, has pointed to policies designed to create an equitable, forward-thinking institution and a harassment-free workplace. Keeping an employee who espoused sexist views, very publicly, in intimidating language, it implied, would undermine those efforts.
Simoes could conceivably seek recourse under the Constitutional right to free expression; as a Crown entity, Hydro One may be bound by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But that, too, would be an uphill climb. Where private companies are concerned, wrongful-dismissal case law has consistently upheld an employer’s right to fire workers over expressions or opinions that could damage its reputation. Why, Hydro One might reasonably ask, should it be held to a different standard?
Still, Howard thinks the Simoes saga might yet surprise us. If Simoes belongs to the union—neither Hydro One nor either of the two major unions representing its workers would confirm it; Simoes could not be reached for comment—and he grieves his dismissal, past decisions suggest he might salvage his job. Arbitrators regularly reinstate people, notes Howard, in some cases, clawing back some of the pay missed after a firing as penalty for the misdeed. “That’s the environment Hydro’s heading into,” he says. “In my opinion, it’s going to be challenging for them.”
At this point, practically no twist to the story would surprise Shauna Hunt. On a much-needed day off, her voice raspy from numberless media interviews, she’s casting back on the frenzy of the past week: the unexpected deluge of worldwide attention; the out-of-body experience of being subject rather than storyteller.
The big surprise, though, remains the speed and vengeance with which Simoes was fired. From the outset, Hunt and her editors maintained they did not intend to get Simoes dismissed. She now reveals that, within an hour of the clip going live on CityNews’s 5 p.m. Monday newscast, viewers were sending her emails saying he worked for Hydro One. She and her editors decided against using that information, she says, because she thought doing so would shift the focus off the FHRITP trend, which she desperately wants to stop. “I never want to see anyone lose his job,” Hunt adds ruefully. “When I found out, I did struggle with it internally.”
By Friday, Simoes had sent Hunt a written apology, which the reporter describes as genuine. She has declined to release the text because it came in the form of a personal letter, but says it is not the kind of mealy-mouthed I’m-sorry-you-were-offended apology issued by the resentfully humbled: “I really felt that he meant it.”
Is it a first step to Simoes getting his job back? Highly doubtful. Carmine Marcello, Hydro One’s CEO, says the utility hasn’t wavered from its decision, and it’s increasingly clear that Hydro fears how its female employees would view Simoes’s reinstatement. “The fact remains: The behaviour was reprehensible,” he told the National Post last week. “This was not a grey line.”
Paradoxically, Marcello maintained that Simoes was “free to speak his mind”—an assertion that will be cold comfort to the former network engineer, and one he’d be well-advised to disregard when, and if, he lands another job. Whether he’s in his cubicle at work, or in the boozy environs of a soccer stadium, the rules of both polite company, and the company that signs his cheques, will apply. The boss, he now knows, is always watching.