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Yes, Bad Twitter Jokes Can Get You Fired

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Justine Sacco, a former PR executive at a large media company, learned the hard way that a bad Twitter joke can lead to more repercussions than rotten tomatoes being flung at you.

Dubbed "the tweet heard 'round the world," Sacco sent the following message to her followers before she boarded a flight for Cape Town last week: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" By the time she landed, the tweet had gone viral. Soon after, Sacco was sacked.

Sacco's story confirms people can -- and often do -- get fired for their social media posts.

Twitter: Where Bad Jokes Live Forever

Above all, Sacco's social media disaster shows that Twitter is a public space. When you make an offensive joke on Twitter, you should liken it to a message being pulled by an airplane across the sky. An offensive joke that may "fly" with your racist Uncle Bob may be less welcome in a public setting like Twitter.

Sacco's ordeal also shows that even with a Twitter disclaimer, you can still get fired. Disclaimers such as "views are my own" or "RTs aren't endorsements" won't necessarily protect you from getting axed for inappropriate tweets. This is primarily because your disclaimer will do little to prevent people from associating your views with your employer.

Steps You Can Take

Rather than pretend that a disclaimer will magically shield you from any negative employment consequences, take it upon yourself to practice good social media etiquette by doing the following:

  • Follow your employer's social media policy. Although an employer's social media policy can't be too restrictive, it can typically prohibit employee speech that is discriminatory or offensive.
  • Tweet as you'd behave in-person. As NPR's staff social media guidelines put it, "Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances and treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline."
  • Don't tweet office gossip. Never air your dirty work laundry on social media. It's bad for morale and the company's overall reputation.

Finally, if you make a mistake, apologize immediately. For goodness' sake, Sacco was a PR executive. Mistakes happen even to the best of us.

But brace yourself for the worst: When your Twitter faux pas is as bad as Sacco's, your job may be as good as gone. If, however, you feel your social media-related firing (or other negative workplace consequence) is uncalled for, it may be time to consult an experienced employment lawyer near you.

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