Corporate control of staff personal life

News that Deakin University lecturer Martin Hirst was stood down without pay over three tweets, caused ripples of concern in the twittersphere and in the academy. Since the story first broke, Hirst has been sacked pending a decision to appeal. His employer’s position is that Hirst has breached the university’s code of conduct. The university had received a complaint from a Deakin University student that Hirst tweeted to the complainant in a threatening way. When the University inspected Hirst’s private account – that did not identify Hirst as a Deakin employee – it found two further offending tweets and suspended him. Hirst maintains that he did not know the complainant was a Deakin student.

This is not the first time an employee has had their job threatened by a social media post. In 2015, SBS reporter Scott McIntyre lost his job following a controversial tweet about the ANZACs. He has since settled his unfair dismissal case against SBS. More recently, La Trobe academic Roz Ward was  stood down for comments on her private Facebook page. Her comments did not relate to her work at La Trobe. She has since been reinstated after a massive national campaign.

The merger of public and private has never been so stark it seems. So, where might the boundary lie?

Broadcast yourself

The citizen of today and no doubt of tomorrow, is encouraged to broadcast themself. Sharing is all around us – even our location data is given and taken as we upload our lives for others to see. Despite implications for privacy, it can be difficult to hold back when the convenience and frequently the enjoyment of sharing is there for the taking.

Sharing is not only about fun and convenience however. Broadcasting ourselves has become part of the way in which we construct ourselves as citizens and as employees – or potential employees. Personal branding describes the process of developing and packaging an image of ourselves to maximise our appeal to the market. We can use the tools of social media to create and represent our image to a huge audience. Beyond the image itself, for many the extent of the broadcast is also important – measured through followers, likes, hits, downloads, and engagement. All of this, together, is part of our employable selves.

Celebrities do this of course, with the aid of stylists and PR managers. But so too do ordinary people simply through logging on and entering into public discourse.

Employers like their employees to have a personal brand, as it reflects well on the organisation. Their employees gain kudos as their brand becomes recognisable. Academics can spread word of their research and their media comment increases (a fact measured by universities as ‘impact’). Lawyers gain a reputation as experts, increasing their profile within the profession and the community. Journalists gain reputation and source stories as well as promote traffic to their publications.

Everything is sweet until the (personal) brand loses its gloss when the individual fails to toe the corporate line.

Private lives or corporate bottom line?

The problem is of course that we don’t just have one brand. We are workers, professionals, and we are private people with family, hobbies, interests, and even prejudices and sometimes an ugly turn of phrase. Before social media (or absent social media) we play these roles in different contexts, and consequently for the most part can separate them. It was not so difficult to adhere to professional or corporate protocols at work, then to let one’s hair down after hours. The traditional culture clash has been the work Christmas party – the analogue version of the merger of the public/private self and a context ripe for transgression.

Social media however brings the possibility that all sides of our person play out to the same audience online. Even a private account – one ostensibly not visible to the general public – can bring us into the public eye, as Roz Ward found out. A simple screen grab is all it takes for comments intended for a private audience to go viral. Sometimes the issue is not even a social media post, but an activity done in real life that is recorded and then spread online. The very nature of privacy has fundamentally changed, in light of the ubiquitous camera and instantaneous, 24/7, global connectivity.

Consider this range of activities all of which have recently caused controversy. All but one have had consequences for the employment of the person responsible. Note the divergent contexts within which the behaviour has occurred.

Individual, personal electronic communication Person sends unsolicited film of themselves masturbating, to consensual sexual partner
Group, work electronic communication Employee sends emails with racist content to colleagues and friends on work email account, over two-year period
Private online group Person makes known their antipathetic feelings about flags on Facebook
Private online account in public domain Person tweets information about WWI soldiers’ behaviour, derived from War Memorial records
Private online account in public domain Person responds to series of ostensibly provocative tweets in an allegedly disrespectful tone. Has sworn in other tweets
Private in-person gathering Person at private party simulates a lewd act on a dog
Private in-person gathering Organisation holds dinner at which the menu describes the Prime Minister in lewd terms

The lesson is that personal communications, private communications, and interactions even in person to a closed group are all capable of being professional representation and therefore within the authority of the employment contract. There is no longer any private, and no longer any personal. Despite the precarity of our work, we are always beholden to a ‘suitable’ yet unspecified corporate image.

Making room in public for the personal

My advice to anyone heading online was and will continue to be, be cautious. Don’t swear. Be pleasant. Exercise self-discipline, and self-censor. Don’t engage with trolls. These are risk-averse (lawyerly) principles designed to align with the likely ‘professional’ standards of the contemporary Western corporation. In a similar vein, Thesis Whisperer asks: ‘if I blog, will I lose my job?’

Hirst’s account however reflects different choices that he exercises when he is online, being himself and not a corporate ambassador. I would describe his Twitter feed as ‘rambunctious’. I observe that he is hardly alone in his approach, and it forms part of the wider online discourse. There is a style of engagement online that is sweary, irreverent, argumentative and sometimes even belligerent, and it is carried on by a range of people including ‘professionals’, in full public view. (This manner is not anything like the torrents of abuse and threatening behaviour that occur online, much of which is likely to be unlawful.) Hirst observes that others are similarly exuberant in their language, in diverse contexts, without similar corporate sanction.

In Ward’s case, her comments are entirely unrelated to this type of discourse. Instead they appeared to be a flippant expression of her political views.

In each case, it remains unclear why it is desirable that an employer would take responsibility for private personae such as these. This is particularly the case where the relevant comments are not dispatched from a corporate-brand account. Part of the issue, I suspect, is that those making decisions about the ‘appropriateness’ of online behaviours – including those that occur outside a work context – may not be familiar with the spectrum of discourse online.

Self-censorship online is in one sense a choice. For the neoliberal worker in a world of precarious employment, broadcasting oneself to establish one’s brand can be an investment in one’s employability. But resistance to this cleansed persona and to the notion of the corporate self is a choice also, one that might legitimately be exercised through a discourse of opposition; one that challenges the contemporary hegemonic norms of ‘professionalism’. Importantly also, beyond our employable selves, there must be a place for personal comments that are not circumscribed by our working lives.

The circumstances of our employment – contrary to popular opinion – are not fully within our choice. We are not, for the most part, the authors of our career destiny. If the corporate world has the power to terminate our employment for our personal actions or private communications, self-censorship ceases to become a choice and becomes a necessity; a question of economic survival.

We need to discuss just how we can re-establish public space for private comment and personal views. It is a complex discussion. Where does private comment stand, and what are the bounds of corporate control of speech?

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