Bullets rained down on a country music concert in Las Vegas this weekend, murdering 59 people and wounding over 500 more. Before the cops had counted all the corpses, Hayley Geftman-Gold, senior corporate attorney for CBS, wrote on her personal Facebook page that she was “actually not even sympathetic” to the victims of the Las Vegas attack because “country music fans often are [R]epublican gun toters.” When her comments went viral, CBS fired her.
The broadcasting company clearly had a legal right to sack her. But should companies fire their employees for saying stupid (or even disgusting) things that are unrelated to work performance?
The Trump Administration seems to think so. Last week, President Trump suggested that NFL owners should respond to the take-a-knee protesters by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!” A couple of weeks before the NFL comments, the administration called for the ouster of ESPN SportCenter host Jemele Hill, who had sent out a series of vile tweets from her personal Twitter account, accusing the president and his supporters of being “white supremacists.”
The moral case for firing the NFL protesters or Jemele Hill has always been weak, but the case for sacking a person like Hayley Geftman-Gold is even feebler. With the NFL protesters, you could at least argue that players are in uniform, protesting at work on the boss’s time. While Jemele Hill was not on the air when she made her comments, she is a public figure who has a responsibility to ESPN to avoid alienating half of America. Hayley Geftman-Gold, by contrast, is not a celebrity, and she posted her comments from her private account, where she had no real public following. New Facebook pages called “Terminate Hayley Geftman-Gold” and “Disbar Hayley Geftman-Gold” have garnered more of a following in the last couple of days than her now-deactivated personal page ever did.
Geftman-Gold’s comments were so disgusting that I, like a lot of my Facebook friends, was tempted to cheer when CBS fired her. That is, until I considered what other political opinions corporate America might find unacceptable.
Just two months ago, the American right was justly outraged when Google fired a senior engineer named James Damore for writing a memo that criticized the company’s diversity programs (which he had posted on a company forum designed to discuss company policy). Most of the memo’s factual assertions were correct, and his opinions were mainstream. But he was fired anyway. Ms. Geftman-Gold was dead wrong. Mr. Damore was mostly right. But both offended a lot of people, and in America today, that is now grounds for dismissal.
As social media becomes a bigger part of our day-to-day communications, the line between a public figure and a private person is disappearing. Many daily social interactions of a completely private person—like, say, my grandmother—take place on quasi-public forms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. Do we really want to set a precedent where the ideas you express in those spaces could get you fired?
I would like to live in a country where we are free to be wrong without losing our jobs. After all, a man can be disrespectful to the National Anthem and a great football player. A dude can be a little sexist and a great programmer. And a woman can be a perfectly good corporate lawyer and an insensitive jerk.
While there will always be vindictive people who demand that corporations fire employees for saying stupid stuff online, America’s biggest companies—and the rest of us—should have the wisdom and decency to ignore them.