Controversial tweet's fallout holds lesson for employers, employees

You’ll often find the following disclaimer on social media profiles: “Tweets are my own and don’t represent my employer.”

I shake my head at the naivety of even the most educated. If an employee goes viral on social media for remarks that reflect poorly on an organization, the employer has mere minutes to respond or face potentially permanent damage to their business and reputation.

Recently, high-profile activist Harsha Walia tweeted about the burning of multiple Catholic churches: “Burn it all down.” At the time, she was the head of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), a charitable organization dedicated to protecting human rights and advancing civil liberties. It relies on donations to operate. Walia’s tweet reverberated around the world with debates raging in the media and on social media in support and against her.

I was among the tweeters. Initially, the president of BCCLA officially supported Walia. In that case, from a crisis management perspective, I said Walia should apologize for her comments, instead of doubling down by claiming that she was being misinterpreted. An apology may have been enough to recover her reputation – and soothe the sting for the BCCLA – because it is human nature to forgive people who address their mistakes and demonstrate leadership.

Some on social media argued that because her comment was made on her personal Twitter account, it should not impact her employer or employment. Others called on the BCCLA to terminate Walia. Eventually, more than two weeks after the controversy started – and showing no signs of ending – Walia resigned her position.

The BCCLA’s president posted the following on the organization’s website: “Words matter. Context matters. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association supports the cherished right to free expression, and as an organization we want our messages to be clear. A tweet by our executive director on her personal account failed in that regard. We regret the misunderstanding that was caused by the tweet and apologize for the harm the words caused.”

Two courts

In today’s world, employers must manage two arenas when it comes to a crisis: the court of law and the court of public opinion.

According to Fasken employment lawyer Kristen Woo, terminations are not automatic, and employers have a duty to investigate fairly and objectively. The misconduct “must be or be likely to be prejudicial to the interests or reputation of the employer.” Woo says employees also have the duty to “act in a manner that does not detrimentally harm the employer’s interests.”

Taryn Mackie, a partner and employment lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright, says there are ways companies can mitigate and manage risk, much of it through company policies and proactive education regarding those policies, which may include:

•Reminding employees that employment duties and company policies apply to online activity at work and outside of work. These include comments that may be detrimental to the employer, harassing or bullying in nature, or in violation of human rights.

•Addressing representations: are the employees representing the company when online?

•Advising employees that social media activities may be monitored and reviewed.

•Notifying employees that they are responsible for their activities and may be held accountable for them.

•Outlining the consequences for breaching company policies regarding the use of social media.

•Obtaining a signed acknowledgement from employees, noting an understanding of and commitment to respect the policies.

Mackie says if an investigation results in dismissal that the employee challenges in a judicial setting, the onus is ultimately on the employer to prove the breach and avoid damages.

Public confidence

Lawyers say there are a few actions available to an employer if an employee goes viral:

•Speak to the employee or impose conditions on continued employment.

•Suspend or place the employee on leave pending the outcome of the employee’s trial or an internal investigation.

•Discharge or discipline the employee.

But then there is the matter of public confidence. In particularly offensive cases, it is prudent for employers to take immediate action and make public statements to protect reputational damage.

Walia’s case should be a lesson for employers and employees – that a personal tweet can do untold damage for both parties. •

Renu Bakshi ( is a former longtime journalist now working as a senior communications strategist specializing in crisis management and media training.