When female tech developer Adria Richards heard a group of men sitting behind her at a conference make sexist comments, it grossed her out.
She tweeted their picture to her 9,000 followers with the caption "Not cool. Jokes about forking repo's in a sexual way and 'big' dongles. Right behind me."
Richards asked conference managers to deal with the men, citing the conference's rules of conduct. Administrators escorted the men out of the ballroom.
Richards' tweet set off a social media tsunami and led to one of the jokers and Richards being fired. Richards' critics blasted her, protested that the men were only making childish geek jokes and threatened her with rape and death threats.
While her former CEO said his company supported Richards' right to report offensive sexual comments, he said she crossed the line by tweeting the men's comments and photographs. "Publicly shaming the offenders -- and bystanders -- was not the appropriate way to handle the situation. Needless to say, a heated public debate ensued. The discourse, productive at times, quickly spiraled into extreme vitriol."
He terminated Richards, stating her actions divided and alienated the developer community she was hired to strengthen. He added that "the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger."
After a situation in which so much went wrong, what suggestions does hindsight offer?
While the men's defenders insist Richards "eavesdropped" on two men "just joking" with each other, the men spoke loudly enough to be overheard. If they wanted their comments to remain between them, they should have found a private location or spoken more softly.
Richards could have straightforwardly told the men behind her they offended her, giving them a chance to realize they acted like jerks and apologize. Instead, she complained to the conference's managers and used social media to publicly shout out that boorish behavior isn't cool. By expecting others to handle the situation and avoiding direct honesty, she created a situation that backfired on her.
What were Richards' employers' obligations? While they sent her to the conference, no employer can protect employees from what others say in public conferences. Still, was it right that they bowed to public pressure and fired her?
According to attorney Charles Krugel, "Richards was there on her employer's behalf. She shouldn't have been fired. The attendees she blogged about were wrong, with one fired. Richards' employer should have left it at that or at least followed up with the conference managers so this type of conduct doesn't happen again. Although conferences have a reputation for being 'frat' parties they're not -- people are there to earn a living."
"The anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII's Civil Rights Act of 1964 make it unlawful to discriminate against an individual because she opposes unlawful discrimination," added attorney Eric Meyer, a partner at Dilworth Paxson LLP. "The law does not place any restrictions on the manner in which an employee complains about discrimination. Before the advent of social media, employees generally complained about workplace harassment in person, via telephone, in a letter, or through email. While a tweet or a blog post isn't a traditional complaint, it is a complaint nonetheless."
"Even if the law does not technically recognize the actions of which Ms. Richards complained as unlawful discrimination, she need only have a reasonable belief that what she experienced was unlawful."
According to Meyer, although Richards aired her complaint in an unusual way, it needs to be treated as a complaint: "It would come as no surprise if Richards' employer ends up as the defendant in a retaliation lawsuit."
Meyer added that even though her employer may have preferred Richards utilize "another method to complain about sex discrimination at the conference, the law is not concerned with the employer's preference. A complaint by any other method or medium -- even social media -- is still a complaint. The law is designed to protect employees from unlawful harassment and those who complain about it."
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of The Growth Company Inc. Send questions to Lynne at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.