A risk manager’s quick observation of the Adria Richards hubbub
I first learned about Adria Richards’ now infamous tweet and firing from Sully, but since then commentary surrounding the controversy seems to be everywhere. Over the past couple of days I’ve seen just about every possible opinion given about both her firing and the firing of the men whose comments she tweeted.
What I haven’t seen mentioned, however, is the single point that should be the most obvious. On the incredibly depressing chance that this is because no one commenting actually understands this point, I’m going to throw on my Professional Corporate Training Hat on and make it here.
To review for those new to the hubbub, the essential facts of the matter are as follows:
Adria Richards was the employee of a Silicon Valley tech company who attended PyCon, a professional trade show. While there, she heard a group of men sitting behind her making sexual jokes that she found inappropriate. She took a picture of the men who were offending her, crafted a quick message to mock them, and tweeted it
to her many thousands of followers. One of the men was subsequently terminated from his position. Later, as news of her actions went viral, her employer terminated Richards.
Commentary from the Internet suggests that, as always, citizens of the Internet have a hard time remembering that everything everywhere isn’t all about them. Everywhere I turn, I read one of two different arguments:
Internet Argument #1: Many people I know including myself make inappropriate sexual jokes sometimes; therefore it is a travesty of justice that that man was fired.
Internet Argument #2: I believe that women are under represented in the technology and science fields; therefore it is a travesty of justice that Richards was fired.
Again, it depresses me that I actually have to spell this out, but here’s the thing:
When your employer sends you to a trade show, you are acting as and seen as a representative of your company. Even though you may not realize it, they aren’t dishing out the thousands of dollars they spend on airfare, hotel accommodations, and lost productivity at home so that you can be on vacation. When you are at a trade show you are by definition surrounded by peers, partners, competitors, vendors and – most importantly – customers and potential customers.
The degree to which you embrace being an ambassador of your organization may vary, but at the very least the baseline you should shoot for is Not Forcing Your Organization to Pick Up the Phone and Apologize to Anyone.
Whenever I do harassment trainings to large groups, there are always those that voice their opinion that hanging out at someone else’s cubicle telling off-color jokes is somehow a Natural Right endowed by the Creator and solidified by our countries Founders. It isn’t; get over it. The men who got their asses tweeted by Richards didn’t tell an offensive sex joke in private – they told it in a crowd at a volume where people sitting around them could hear it. And don’t send me emails saying that what they said couldn’t possibly offend anyone – the reaction by Richards and half of the Internet should be pretty irrefutable evidence that it could. (Also, while I can’t say for certain, if I were a betting man I would guess that it wasn’t random chance that two employees were given some type of internal discipline and another was terminated. I think it’s not an unreasonable assumption that at least one of these men has had a similar conversation with management prior to PyCon.)
Likewise, you do not have a right to publicly humiliate potential partners, vendors and customers on your company’s dime while acting as their representative. I feel a great deal of empathy for Richards, because I’ve been in similar situations at trade shows. I know what it’s like to be working and hear a client say something so inappropriate (you have no idea) that you want to gather a crowd and humiliate them to the point of tears. It’s a really, really strong temptation. And if your name is the one over the front door where you work, you should feel free to do so and know that your job (if not your revenue) is safe and secure. But like it or not, when you agree to represent your organization in public you don’t have that luxury. Like the men who Richards tweeted, she has the freedom to express herself anyway she wishes; and like those same men, that freedom does not guard her from the consequences of having her employer decide she’s potentially damaged their relationships.
Which isn’t to say that Richards shouldn’t have tweeted what she did; maybe she should have. If you believe in something so strongly that you’re willing to risk your job and income in order to stand up for it, I find that admirable. Back when I was a working Joe, I always prided myself for putting together work teams of people who shared that quality.
But just as you need to accept the fact that you might be arrested if you perform an illegal sit-in, you need to accept the reality that if you want to become a rogue angel of justice while on company business you might find yourself out of a job.