Management / The American View: Under a Killing Meme

The American View: Under a Killing Meme

No one should be persecuted for holding offensive beliefs or making outrageous statements. That being said, Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger argues that those protections don’t mean that your employer has to keep you on the payroll when you say something harmful to their brand.

It’s never been easier to commit career suicide with a single click, and I think that’s a darned good thing for employers everywhere. I’m not talking about the rise of sexual harassment awareness in the workplace (although that’s significant and encouraging in its own right). Rather, I’m talking about the way social media has facilitated people’s ability to publicly self-identify as unrepentant bigots early so that they can be booted out of their company before they inflict irreparable damage.

As an example: my local paper devoted a good bit of column space this weekend to a politician who decided to ‘out’ himself as a religious bigot. On Saturday the 17th, the Dallas Morning News posted two columns on page 1 of the Metro & State section to the case of Plano City Councilman Tom Harrison and his decision to share an anti-Islamic graphic from the account ‘Hands Across America for Trump’ to his personal Facebook page. The still image read: ‘Share if you think Trump should ban Islam in schools.’ [1]

There’s a minor furore in our community over what should be done about Councilman Harrison. Some people have advocated for accepting his weasel-y half apology and pretending that the offence never happened. I’ve also heard people opine that Harrison shouldn’t be penalized for exercising his first amendment rights. One person ardently defended the man’s right to be a racial and religious bigot if that’s what he wants.

I understand those points. Councilman Harrison has the same right as everyone else to hold whatever irrational beliefs he likes. He can also choose to speak in public about his beliefs even if others find those beliefs offensive or provocative. If he chooses to tell the world that he hates Muslim people for whatever reason, that’s his right. American law and values demand that no one should be silenced by the government just because their speech or opinions are unpopular.

We have enough problems already with government suppression of unpopular speech; we don’t need more

Contrasting that, others have argued the councilman he should be booted off the Plano City Council for being a bigot (if, in fact, he is one). Others argued that he disqualified himself for public office for saying bigoted things. The most interesting position I’ve heard was that Harrison should lose his job specifically and solely for how his bigoted public statements negatively affected his employer’s ability to do business.

This last position in intriguing. The idea, as I’ve heard it articulated best, is that Mr. Harrison’s right to hold unpopular beliefs and his right to speak about those beliefs should be protected. That being said, he has no right to remain employed after he harmed his employer’s brand. The councilman’s public statements put the City Council in an awful bind; if they fail to take action, it might signal to the voters and to the companies doing business in Plano that the city government agrees with Harrison’s position, and therefore that Plano’s city government also is prejudiced against Muslims.

To be clear, I don’t think that employers should be allowed to punish employees’ beliefs, bigotries, or personal speech. Companies have a crucial interest in ridding themselves of unprofessional team members that embarrass the brand through public acts and statements advocating for bigotry. The most logical and practical way to distance an organisation from a bigot’s statements is to swiftly fire the bigot. It’s not retaliation; it’s debriding a wound before infection kills the brand. Seem harsh?

Maybe not; we’re human. That means we’re all inherently irrational to some degree about something. Lots of people hold controversial, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally abhorrent personal beliefs. Any given worker is likely to hold an unreasonable bias for or against some other worker, driven by religious, racial, social, political, regional, sexual, or other reasons. Some people overcome their irrationality, others struggle to suppress theirs, and some people embrace it and won’t ever let it go.

For some people, hate is all they have left to motivate them 

The ‘why’ behind a worker’s biases sometimes makes sense. Some people were raised to hate or to fear others. Some came to resent others based on personal experiences. Some were poisoned on the idea of others through propaganda, nationalism, or cynical misdirection. Sometimes these biases are laughable, and other times understandable. There are times when a rational person can honestly sympathize with another’s deep-seated resentments. [2]

The point is, there’s a good chance that the next person over in the cubicle farm holds an illogical grudge against some other type of person. In the US, that fact in and of itself is not a deal-breaker for employment. People hold weird beliefs. Just holding an irrational belief isn’t in and of itself a contra-indicator for employment in an integrated global economy. What matters is that a person’s irrational beliefs do not interfere with the execution of their professional duties. While at work, they don’t act on their biases.

That’s the social contract that makes office cultures work. We all have to get along. Whatever biases we might have that makes us fear, dislike, or hate one another in the abstract cannot manifest in our work. Everyone has to be trusted to keep his or her personal issues suppressed while in the office. This goes double for people holding positions of power: a leader cannot appear to harbour any trace of bias in any of their official decisions or actions. Taking the company’s coin means that you’re required to act under the company’s code of professional ethics when in the public eye.

It’s important to acknowledge that most people make this arrangement work. I’ve had racial, religious, classist, homophobic, sexist, and political bigots all work for me. The ones that prospered were the ones that left their biases at home and did their job with unchallengeable integrity. If I didn’t have a separate relationship with these people outside of work, I’d never have known what flavours of hatred roiled inside them. They did their jobs well, treated everyone fairly, and could be trusted to act responsibly.

Portrait of creative business team standing together and laughing. Multiracial business people together at startupOne of these people thinks that all of the others in the team photo are all sub-human filth. So long as that belief never once manifests in the workplace – in any way – she still has a job

People who couldn’t keep their prejudices quiet, on the other hand, had to go. To be clear: the problem wasn’t that they were bigots per se; the problem was that they couldn’t be trusted to maintain their professional composure. Announcing publically that they held an irrational bias was, in and of itself, a strong indicator that they lacked the self-control required to keep their irrational bias(es) from manifesting in the workplace.

Put another way, if you can’t keep up your façade of professionalism in the public square, then it’s damned hard to believe that you can live up to our non-negotiable standards for professionalism in your decisions and actions.

From a company’s standpoint, a worker – especially a leader! – who undermines faith and confidence in the organisation’s ability to conduct business without personal bias has got to go. Customers, suppliers, and regulators watch organisations closely when scandals like this manifest. An organisation that fails to condemn bigoted behaviour is often perceived (rightly or wrongly) to tacitly endorse that bigoted behaviour. The fastest way to deal with the perception of harmful bias is to eliminate the source of it.

So, should this guy Harrison get kicked off the Plano City Council? From a purely dispassionate business perspective, yeah. He should.

Angry boss firing employee with hand gesture at office meetingIt’s not personal. It’s not an indictment of the fellow’s controversial beliefs. It’s strictly pragmatic: survival of the group through removing the liability. 

The guy could be a warm and loving family man. He might have admirable faith and humility. He might have excellent business skills. All that might be true, and it’s also irrelevant given what he did. By sharing an obviously bigoted post on social media, he demonstrated that he lacks the professional judgement and self-discipline to be trusted representing the City Council’s brand. Could he be rehabilitated and regain the public’s trust? Sure. Absolutely. But later, not here and not now. Not after this mistake.

It seems like a harsh punishment for such little thing. One tap of a fingertip on a ‘share’ button and the man’s paid employment with a prestigious organisation is over. Then again, that’s exactly the point: all the fellow had to do to keep his job was to literally not tap that button. The fact that he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) exert enough self-control to avoid broadcasting what seemed to be a blatant anti-Muslim bias to the world suggests that he lacks the self-control required by his position to avoid letting that same anti-Muslim bias interfere with his professional responsibilities.

This seems like a clear-cut case of one-tap career suicide, and I can’t say that it’s a bad thing. Before social media oversharing became the norm, it used to take a lot more time, effort and luck to catch bigots. Often, we couldn’t kick out a biased worker until after they’d harmed the company and cost us other workers and squandered our public trust. We’d only find out about an active, practising bigot after a disgruntled team member was storming out the door. Now, all we have to do is pay passing attention to social media. The least professional members of the team enthusiastically announce their incompatibility with our company values, saving everyone time. How thoughtful.


[1] Of the two articles dissecting the event, I preferred (and recommend) DMN Columnist James Ragland’s editorial ‘Plano council member eats his (implied) words, but anti-Islam video he posted is hard to swallow.’

[2] Marvel’s new superhero movie Black Panther does an excellent job of presenting a deeply-prejudiced supervillain whose perspectives and motivations the audience can not only empathize with, but can also come to agree with in some respects.

Title Allusions: Top o’the hat to Access Software’s 1994 sci-fi noir video game Under a Killing Moon. Apologies for cutting the four paragraphs that explained the connection.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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