Somewhere in most employee handbooks are rules about online behavior.
Those rules don’t seem to be working too well. For proof, look no further than the comments people leave under YouTube videos or blog posts or in back-and-forth snipes under news stories. Look at the hateful replies and invective hurled about on Twitter and Facebook.
Internet trolling is ubiquitous in part because it comes with few consequences. You walk up to a woman at work and call her a slut, you get fired, punched or, hopefully, both. You walk up to someone you disagree with and start calling that person an idiot, you get publicly shunned, punched or, hopefully, both.
There are checks and balances in place in real life that maintain a standard of decorum, but the online world is a corrosive free-for-all. Trolling is dismissed as harmless chatter, but tell that to people who have endured rape threats, death threats, depression and other psychological harm.
The nastiness unleashed online lessens us as a society. It affects the work productivity of victims and it emboldens the trolls themselves, making them more likely to test juvenile, insulting behavior in the real world.
Comedian Alison Leiby recently wrote about her experience with men reacting negatively to a joke she posted on Twitter. The responses swiftly went from misogynistic to violent to threatening.
She wrote: “I have the thick skin of a comic and someone who doesn’t moisturize nearly enough, but I’m still a human being. It wore me down, seeing tweet after tweet tell me that women are objects, that we’re valueless. … Try not internalizing that a bit. Try not letting those words start to get to you.”
At the end of last year, Clementine Ford, a feminist writer in Australia, was called a slut on her Facebook page by a man named Michael Nolan. She looked at Nolan’s Facebook page, saw that his employer was listed and then contacted that employer and shared Nolan’s comment.
Nolan, according to Ford and numerous media reports, was fired.
And that’s where companies can play a role in making Internet trolls think twice before they spout off.
“I think companies overall tend to be pretty vigilant about wanting to protect their business reputation and their goodwill with clients or business partners,” said Peter Gillespie, an attorney at the employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. “Certainly if they see that an employee is engaged in online misconduct in a way that ties back to the business or the employer, they will be very quick to take appropriate action.”
At this point, Internet trolls will likely jump up and down and call me a stupid, idiot moron and yell about freedom of speech.
Nobody is saying you’re not free to write whatever horrible garbage you want to write on the Internet. But the idea that words come with consequences isn’t a free speech infringement, and if a company finds out that you’re a misogynistic jerk online, they have a right — and possibly even a responsibility — to reprimand you.
“I don’t think a free speech argument carries the day when you’ve got employees who are engaged in unacceptable behavior,” Gillespie said. “If someone’s harassing someone online and the employer’s aware of it, and then similar behavior happens in the workplace, there’s a risk that someone could say the company knew this person behaved this way and tolerated it.”
The implication in many employee rule books is that one has to watch his or her behavior during company time.
Perhaps companies should be a bit more explicit in explaining that what you do in your personal time can matter just as much. (Gillespie noted that companies have to walk a fine line there, as the National Labor Relations Board is very protective of a worker’s ability to voice opinions about an employer. But I’m not talking about work gripes in a chat room with colleagues. I’m talking about the aggressive and profane harassment of individuals — often strangers — with whom a person disagrees.)
If a business wants to take this issue seriously, why not update the online behavior portion of the employee handbook to include: Don’t call a woman a slut; don’t make threats; don’t harass and insult others incessantly.
“Generally the safest thing for employers to do is to make sure their handbooks reflect their business interests and not having their business reputation and business goodwill impinged by employees going out and engaging in antisocial and inappropriate conduct on social media,” Gillespie said.
Personally, I would applaud a company that went beyond safe, that acknowledged this as a societal problem and made clear that Internet trolling before, during or after work, if discovered, will not be tolerated.
No company is going to police its employee’s social media activity. But bad behavior can be reported, like it was in Ford’s case, and people might be emboldened to report trolls more frequently if they knew the offender might suffer consequences. (To those who believe the Internet provides too much anonymity to identify trolls hiding behind fake user names, don’t kid yourself. Unveiling people is easier than most anonymous blabbers think.)
The classic saying when it comes to Internet harassers is: Don’t feed the trolls. Just ignore them and they’ll go away.
But they don’t always do that. And even if they do, they’re likely to move on and harass someone else.
Bad behavior without consequences rarely stops.
Employers like the one that fired Ford’s troll aren’t going to rid the world of Internet fiends. But by stating loudly and in no uncertain terms that such behavior is unacceptable — and by demonstrating harsh consequences when evidence of such behavior is revealed — they can put some fear in the hearts of would-be trolls.
And if that stops one person from harassing another, that’s a solid step in the right direction.
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Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.