Last Wednesday saw cricketer Ollie Robinson’s impressive Test debut overshadowed by the discovery of racist and sexist tweets he made as a teenager.
Not only did the tweets dampen Robinson’s performance, but they undermined the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) anti-discrimination campaign, which had seen the players start the day wearing t-shirts stating: ‘Cricket is a game for everyone.’
Robinson quickly issued a public apology, saying that he was ‘ashamed’ of the ‘thoughtless and irresponsible’ tweets. Yet, embarrassed by the disconnect between their public message and the apparent views of their latest employee, the ECB later announced that Robinson had been suspended for the next Test match pending further investigation by a disciplinary board.
This decision has thrust Robinson to the centre of a national debate. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, supported by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, labelled the ECB’s reaction ‘over the top’.
In recent days, senior players James Anderson, Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler have also come under scrutiny for unsavoury historic tweets, which the ECB has said it will investigate. While debate will continue to rage about the appropriate punishment, the situation raises vital questions about the responsibility that organisations have over their employees’ personal social media accounts.
Some political parties have similarly found themselves facing difficult questions when discriminatory tweets from representatives have emerged. In 2014, tweets from two UKIP council candidates, William Henwood and Harry Perry, were found to contain racist or homophobic remarks. Both resigned or were suspended and Nigel Farage said the comments were ‘entirely inconsistent with being a member of UKIP’, but they added to rumours of racism within the party.
More recently, Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet for retweeting an interview that Maxine Peake gave to The Independent, which suggested that the police techniques used to kill George Floyd had been learnt from Israeli secret services. This was seen by some as a decisive step in Starmer’s aim to eradicate anti-Semitism from the Labour party, showing how the views of politicians are tied to the position of their party.
Media companies have also started taking a hard line on employees’ online actions. The BBC director-general, Tim Davie, offered a warning to his staff last year that they risked losing their job if they posted party-political views, which could undermine the corporation’s impartiality. Then, this week, as the Robinson case unfurled, The Daily Telegraph sacked columnist Julie Burchill for a racist tweet regarding Prince Harry and Meghan’s new baby.
There are differences in some of these cases between historical and recent tweets, but they show that employees across different sectors are being increasingly held to account by organisations for voicing controversial opinions online.
This is a result of how social media has blurred the lines of public and private life and where corporate and individual responsibility cross. For as Robinson and the ECB have found, it is difficult to separate the views of an employee from the ideas of the organisation that they work for.
These lines are only likely to blur more as our world becomes more digitally connected, which means that businesses must create clear guidelines for employees’ social media use so that they understand they do not speak just for themselves, but for their company as well.
Some companies may even heed the view of former England captain, Michael Vaughan, who suggested that the ECB should have screened Robinson before he was picked, and check candidates’ social media for potentially damaging posts before offering them a job. However, before doing so, it would be important for organisations to inform candidates of such monitoring to avoid intruding on their private lives.
Whatever individual organisations do to regulate employees’ social media, it is impossible to entirely separate workers’ comments from their company. So, do not be surprised if there are more individuals like Robinson who are punished for their actions online.