Should personal opinions be career threatening?

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When do personal opinions become an issue for an employer and career threatening to an employee?

There have been a number of recent examples where an employee expressing a personal view on social media saw it spill over to their career sphere – in one instance leading to their dismissal.

Apart from anything else, to me it shows that some employers lack an effective social media policy understood by their staff.

Take the recent Cricket Australia example. When Angela Williamson, its Hobart based executive responsible for policy and government relations in Tasmania, highlighted the lack of abortion facilities there on social media, it eventually led to Cricket Australia firing her.

To Angela it was quite black and white.  She is quoted as saying “It’s really clear that the political opinion I was expressing on my personal Twitter account had nothing to do with my job, and everything to do with my personal experience.”

Even without the deep and heartfelt views about abortions, which are not the subject of this blog, there are many grey areas in this particular issue.

As the ABC recently reported, “The erosion of the boundaries between private and work spheres is well-established. But the perils of social media “opinion creep” mean everything can be notionally viewed as work-related.

It shows how social media posts can create problems and widen debate as well as the importance of organisations having a clear media relations policy that employees are aware of.

The issue seems simple enough.  Angela expressed a personal view on her own Twitter account, not referring to, or identifying, her employer at all.  So, what’s the problem?

It is alleged a staffer linked to the Tasmanian Government forwarded the Tweet to Cricket Australia and that a member of government passed personal information about her pregnancy termination to Cricket Australia, strongly denied by the government.

We don’t really know the details of all this, but at face value Cricket Australia’s response was perhaps insensitive – hauling Angela up to Melbourne to give her notice.

Ironically, only a few weeks ago Cricket Australia was praised for being a female-friendly workplace.

Angela’s role at Cricket Australia involved Tasmanian government relations yet on a public platform she was extremely critical of the same government.  Could she continue to have good relations there and represent her employer effectively?

We may never know, but Cricket Australia obviously decided bridges had been burnt and now it’s up to a Fair Trades hearing on August 17 to work it all out.

Meanwhile, the issue and its ongoing coverage further damages Cricket Australia’s already tarnished brand and image, raising questions about its operating culture.

Once again there are lessons to be learned for both employees and employers to prevent a social media post becoming an issue that could have been avoided or better managed.

It shows that:

  • Every employer needs a social media policy that is part of employment contracts.
  • Social media can have a huge impact and acts as a lightning rod for criticism and dissent.
  • A social media post can be like a pebble thrown into still waters – causing ripples that reach the furthest shores.
  • There is a difference between an opinion expressed personally to friends and one posted on the internet.  In this instance it became a prelude to a bigger story which took off with the subsequent legal action.
  • Terms of employment should perhaps cover such situations.  For example, should it be a condition that the employer is advised before any post is made which could impinge on the job requirements or the organisation? The likely consequences of any post need to be considered – especially when it may affect job performance.
  • The way employees are dismissed needs to be handled sensitively.  Asking someone to fly to head office to be sacked must surely create anger and rancour that will fester on the lonely trip home.
  • It’s not just a post to your own followers. There can be other consequences, such as when it becomes the basis for an industrial dispute.
  • Reactions can snowball once the national (and international) media get involved.
  • Others can get into the act – in this case politicians, feminists, lawyers, commentators, even an employment agency all adding life to the story and perhaps taking it in unwanted directions – once an issue becomes a political football anything can happen.