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Everyday ethics: when work gets involved in what you post online

by The Ethics Centre
14 July 2016
I work for a local government. I recently posted an item on our internal intranet discussion page about some global news involving major corporations. In my post I mentioned a few historical facts about the companies involved. Specifically, that both had developed products used to facilitate major human rights violations during the 20th century. I did not make any judgments, I only stated facts. One of my colleagues took offence and I was told by my employers to remove the post.

Did I do anything wrong? Was my colleague right to take offence? Should I have been asked to take my post down?
This question has been altered to de-identify the submission for privacy reasons.

Let’s start in reverse – should you have been asked to take the post down by your employer?

What’s the reason your workplace has set up an intranet discussion page? Is it for purely social interactions between colleagues, or is it intended to retain some relevance to your actual work activities? If it’s the latter, you’d have to think about whether your post about global politics was relevant in a local government context. If it’s more for social interactions, it seems reasonable for you to post some news of the day with your own thoughts, inviting others to comment.

Whether or not the intranet is for work or social purposes, if your post reflected poorly on your professional responsibilities or relationships in any way it might be reasonable to ask you to take it down. For instance, if you worked in multiculturalism and the human rights violations to which you refer are associated with a certain ethnic community (whether they be victims or perpetrators), sensitivity might support removing the post.

Although policy shouldn’t be the sole dictate of whether something is right or wrong (it might be the policy that needs changing), it’s worth asking whether you are bound by a social media policy as a condition of your employment. If you posted this on work time, on a network that is owned by your employer, there might be restrictions on what you are permitted to post.

If any of these three factors were at play, your workplace might have had good reason to ask you to take down your post. But if these were the reasons, they should have been explained to you at the time – otherwise there’s no way you could avoid making the same mistake again.

The question of whether your colleague was right to take offence is harder to answer. What someone finds offensive isn’t always the product of rational judgement. It can be a product of their personal experiences, private moral beliefs, taste or cultural upbringing, so it’s probably not helpful to think about whether it is right or wrong to feel offence.

Then of course, there’s the question of what constitutes a fact. Sometimes, what we know to be true, others know as untrue. You may have all the evidence you need to know what you posted was an objective fact. Your offended colleague though may see it differently, as opinion or heresay.

It’s probably more reasonable to ask whether your colleague was right to demand you take your post down on the basis of their offence – this also helps us know whether there were any issues with your post.

Philosopher Joel Feinberg suggested we determine the seriousness of offence based on three conditions:
  1. How offensive it was and how easily we could have predicted that others would be offended.
  2. How easy it would be for people to avoid the offensive material.
  3. Whether the person offended has assumed the risk of seeing something offensive through curiosity, voyeurism or by going somewhere that potentially offensive ideas might be explored.
Given your question about this, it seems unlikely you could have predicted someone taking offence. However, you did post it on an organisation-wide intranet board I assume employees often view and wouldn’t expect to see anything particularly controversial. Given this, there are probably difficulties with conditions (2) and (3) of Feinberg’s list that might justify your colleague taking some action – but if it were impossible for you to predict their offence you still might not be to blame.

This would probably be different if you’d posted it on a different forum, like Facebook or Twitter. In those cases your colleague would be free to unfollow you, and they are networks where people are more likely to see opinions and ideas that offend them. In that case, you’d have more grounds to defend the post.

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