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Ask a Boss: My Co-worker Is a Twitter Troll!

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Dear Boss,

I have a conundrum. A co-worker of mine has said some pretty awful things on social media, and I don’t know what, if anything, to do about it.

I work with this person occasionally. When I was new and had to ask him a few questions about a project, I googled him to check out his LinkedIn and so on, and the first thing that came up was his Twitter feed, with the company name in his bio. I added him to a list and went on with my day. In the past few months, though, his feed has turned into a fat-shaming Milo Yiannopoulos–loving bro-fest. He removed the company’s name a few weeks ago — now it has something about “triggering supplicating millennial babies.” Ohhhkay. One of his most recent tweets crossed a major line for me: He used a homophobic slur, specifically to taunt people for being “too sensitive” online.

This guy is in a client-facing position and this Twitter feed is the first thing that comes up on a search for his name.

I don’t know what to do here. I find I’m still pretty upset by his taunt (which, I imagine, is by design), but really I barely know the guy — it’s more the knowledge that my company hired such a nasty person. Dude is a clear outlier, and he already got transferred out of one department for being … himself. I’ve removed him from my lists, naturally.

I feel like our PR folks need to be made aware, though, in case clients look him up and stumble across the hateful rhetoric and lack of judgment. It is a personal feed, but it’s also under his full, fairly unique name. I don’t know if I should confront him, given his bro-y-ness and general hateful attitudes — plus, I can avoid him at work, mostly. I also don’t want to remain silent in the face of hateful shit, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would take confrontation well. I don’t know if this is an HR thing, either — I can imagine that his tweeting will poison quite a few relationships.

Do I just need to let it go, try to avoid working with him, and move on? Confront him? Reporting him feels like tattling somehow, even though he’s the one who is being publicly awful and gross.

Most of the time I’m a pretty staunch advocate that what you do in your private life is your business. But that’s really only true as long as you’re not hurting anyone else. If you’re publicly spewing hateful, vile things about other people — and you’re doing it in this era’s equivalent of the town square — it’s fair game for an employer to have concerns about that.

That’s especially true when the employee in question has a client-facing job, and presumably has clients who belong to any number of the groups of people this guy is issuing slurs about. I mean, if you saw that your financial planner or your dentist was posting stuff like this online, would you happily continue taking your business to him? Most people wouldn’t, and that makes it reasonable for your employer to at least want to be aware of it.

And really, even if your co-worker weren’t in a client-facing job, it’s reasonable for an employer to have concerns about what kind of a working environment he might be creating for his colleagues — some of whom are presumably in the groups he’s insulting — and how well he’s able to work with them. (And it actually sounds like that already might have come up as an issue, if I’m interpreting your comment about his transfer correctly.)

All that said, before we go any further it’s reasonable to ask whether making this kind of thing fair game for employers means that we’re opening the door to meddling in other kinds of employee speech. Does it mean that an employer could take issue with an employee posting in favor of reproductive rights, for example, or health-care access? Does it mean that an employer could say “Well, clients will be uncomfortable knowing that you’re gay, so you need to stamp out all online references to your partner”? And if it doesn’t mean that, then why is it okay for employers to intervene when an employee is publicly advocating viewpoint X but not viewpoint Y?

Those are utterly valid questions and they’re important to ask, because if people have to fear employer reprisal, it could make them hesitant to advocate for social change, publicly support a particular candidate for election, or otherwise speak out on issues that are important to them. But in the case of your co-worker, we’re talking about hate speech and bigotry, not just any old political viewpoint that someone might not like. Hate speech and bigotry are different from normal political discourse; we’ve chosen to treat them differently as a society, and it’s reasonable to think that employers have standing to do that too.

So yes, most managers would say that it would be perfectly reasonable for you to give someone at your company a heads-up about this. I hear you that you’re worried about “tattling,” but I’d argue that that’s not really the right framework to use at work. In general, when you’re trying to figure out when a concern is worth raising to someone above  you, the question to ask yourself is: How does this impact our work, and by how much? So “Jane posts on Facebook during the day” or “Cecil is always five minutes late” aren’t generally things you’d escalate, but it’s different when something truly does affect the organization’s work.

In this case, you’re not just personally annoyed by your co-worker’s views; you’re concerned about the impact that his posts may have on clients and people in your office. That’s a legit concern, and it’s one most bosses would want to hear about. If they don’t feel the need to act on it, then they won’t act on it. But if they are concerned about its potential impact on work and want to address it, you’ll simply have served as the conduit of information that (a) your company sees as a genuine work-related issue and (b) your co-worker is supplying quite publicly. (It’s not like you went snooping through his email and are forwarding private messages that he didn’t expect to have a broader audience.) And if they don’t end up acting, it will still be seen as a reasonable thing to have raised; they won’t view it like coming to them to report that your co-worker is hogging the microwave or something like that.

As for how to do it, you could simply say it this way: “This seems like a PR disaster waiting to happen, and I felt uncomfortable not bringing it to your attention in case it’s something you’d want to know about.”

I wouldn’t bother confronting your co-worker directly, though. That would make it more of a personal issue between the two of you (and he doesn’t sound terribly open to hearing alternate takes on his postings), and since you’re not in his management chain, you don’t have the authority to address it beyond that. If you happened to have a pretty good relationship with him, you could try saying something like, “Hey, have you considered that you might be turning off clients with your social-media posts?” or “You know, this is the first thing that comes up when you’re googled.” But absent any particular rapport with him, I’d leave it to people above you both to decide how to handle it. You shouldn’t have to convince or cajole him into addressing this, and you shouldn’t have to deal with his ire for confronting him about it (apparently you’d get called a “supplicating millennial baby”). Give your company a heads-up, and let them deal with it from there.

Ask a Boss: My Co-worker Is a Twitter Troll!