All Juli Briskman had to do was lift her middle finger to lose her job and cause a national controversy.
The marketing specialist, who was employed by the government contractor Akima LLC, was riding her bike down the streets of Streling, VA, last month as President Trump’s motorcade passed by. According to Briskman, who spoke with the Huffington Post, her momentary flip-off stemmed from frustration. Exasperated by a flurry of Trump decisions–including DACA’s rescinding, his attempt to dismantle Obamacare, and the current aid quagmire in Puerto Rico— she stuck her middle finger up. A White House photographer captured the photo, outlets used the iconic photo in reports, and it quickly went viral. Briskman was proud of the photo–she posted it to her social media accounts but also informed her job about it. Akima said her using the photo as a profile image violated its policies, and she was fired. She told HuffPost this past weekend that she had no regrets.
Still, Briskman’s case is a gnarly one. Beyond the question of whether or not Akima was legally protected in firing her, there’s the looming and ever impenetrable issue of free speech as it relates to work. In this heightened time of divisive political discourse, what is appropriate for employees to say and do and what isn’t?
According to Philippe Weiss, the managing director of Seyfarth Shaw At Work–the legal compliance and consulting arm of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw–it’s important for both employer and employee to be judicious. “From a management perspective,” he says, “you want to be very cautious.”
Specifically, in the case of Akima, the decision to fire Briskman may have done more harm than good. When faced with a situation like this, a company needs to understand what’s at stake. “The landscape has changed,” says Weiss. When something goes viral, companies lose control. And that, says Weiss, “should give every employer pause … you really want to be strategic when looking at these moments.” Currently Akima’s social media pages are being bombarded with angry comments. On its Facebook page alone are dozens of messages advocating for Briskman and telling the company it made a bad decision.
While Akima may have believed Briskman’s conduct was over the line, it also should have thought about what impact its own reaction would bring.
How Political Can You Get In Trump’s America?
Briskman surely isn’t the only employee to be censured for political conduct that seeped into the workplace and she won’t be the last. Recently NFL quarterbackColin Kaepernick saw huge backlash from the league for his protest kneeling during the National Anthem, and ESPN’s Jemele Hill was suspended from her position over controversial tweets. But the bar for appropriate social media behavior is hard to judge in this current era, when the president has tweeted messages that could be construed as bomb threats and hurled personal insults.
Weiss admits that, anecdotally, he has been seeing an increase of politically and socially charged interactions at work. “What I’m seeing in the workplace,” he says, “is the echo chamber effect.” People go to work and talk about the increasingly polarizing material they read online. This is an inevitable outcome, one that he’s noticed grow over the years.
With this distinct change in work culture and conduct, it’s up to businesses to be able to understand that employees may feel compelled to speak out. Most important, organizations must remain consistent in how they respond to this kind of behavior. In the case of Briskman, she says that another coworker wrote lewd, politically charged comments about her online who was not fired. This indicates that Akima wasn’t the most consistent in its application of policies. (Weiss adds that policy execution inconsistencies like this are what hurt businesses in lawsuits.)
For Weiss, it’s all about being even-keeled. “When you get to something that I would argue is political expression,” he says, “it gets a little blurry.” Companies need to avoid a knee-jerk reaction that could set off a firestorm. Instead, they should ensure that employees understand why the business implements such policies; “get them to understand how [employees’ conduct] will affect each other … employees have to buy in.”
What Is The Right Balance?
According to Nancy Flynn, the founder and executive director of the ePolicy Institute–a training, policy, writing, and consulting firm–the most pressing issue the Briskman saga brings up is for companies to have clear policies. “For employers,” she says, “you want to act immediately to put a social media policy in place.” Most important, the policy needs to be clear and employees need to be educated about it.
On that same note (and along the same lines as Weiss’s thoughts) Flynn says “you have to be fair with enforcement–one policy for everyone.” These rules need to be precise–all parties need to understand what conduct is expected from them.
Beyond that, we’re in a new kind of territory. Some businesses can allow for more lax policies, while others–if implemented correctly–can place more draconian guidelines. If companies expect these strictures to be followed, they damn well better make sure they explain and train everyone. “Unfortunately a lot of organizations put a policy into writing but they won’t follow up with the education piece,” says Flynn. “If [employees] don’t know you have a policy you can’t expect them to comply with the rules.”
Whatever the program, organizations need to be realistic. “We’re not going to be able to completely restrict people’s access online,” says Weiss. Some companies, for instance, try to stay out of the speech-policing business altogether. They simply tell employees to respect and value each other and use that as the guiding principle for employee communications. In the modern age–where everyone is online and opinionated–that may be a smart avenue to take.
Ultimately the onus falls on companies and managers. People–especially in the U.S.–are going to want to speak out about issues that are important to them. Organizations can either embrace this and figure out a way to embrace all members’ views, or craft a policy that is clear and executed consistently. If companies do neither they’ll find themselves in hot water.
And this is exactly what happened to Akima. It’s true that Briskman’s middle finger went viral. But, says Weiss, “the [company’s] action may go viral as well.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of the Briskman’s coworker’s comments. They were not written to her, but about her on someone else’s Facebook page. We regret the error.