What To Do If an Employee Makes a Racist Statement Online

employee racist statement on social media

Recently, our country has seen renewed national attention on issues of racial equity and justice. As a result, employees and customers are more inclined to report incidents of racism they witness–with many of these going viral on social media. Read on for some best practices for employers if you receive a report that an employee has made a racist statement online.

1. Don’t ignore it

First, we always recommend responding to the report. It doesn’t matter if an employee, customer, or vendor made the statement. No matter the source, not responding could lead to the situation escalating.

For example, the offending post might go viral and result in additional pressure on you to take action. Further, not responding right away (or after additional complaints) could create the impression that you don’t take racism seriously, harming the company’s reputation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if an employee is making racist statements outside of work, then they may also be making them at work. If this is the case, it could damage your efforts to create a respectful and inclusive workplace and ultimately result in a complaint.

Top Tip: While we do recommend taking action right away, we do not generally recommend monitoring employees’ social media activity. This may be perceived as an invasion of privacy and may expose you to protected information about employees (e.g., their membership in a protected class).

2. Investigate promptly

The next step is to inform the person who reported the statement that you will investigate the situation. From there:

  • Review the details of the comment,
  • Confirm it is actually your employee,
  • Consider the severity of their message, and
  • Evaluate whether or not it could be considered a violation of your harassment or discrimination policy.

If the statement does go against your company’s policies, meet with the employee to explain your concerns and the consequences of their post.

Generally, we recommend taking action in proportion to the severity of the statement. Would you have terminated the employee for the statement had they said it in the workplace? If so, you may want to consider termination. If less severe, a formal warning or requiring the employee to attend anti-discrimination training may be a more suitable response.

3. Keep in mind applicable laws

Section 7 of the NLRA protects employees when discussing the terms and conditions of employment. This includes, for example, wages, hours, and treatment from management. If the statement you’re investigating was not related to work, then it is not protected by Section 7.

Additionally, some states have employment protections for lawful off-duty conduct or political affiliations. These don’t prevent you from disciplining an employee for racist speech. However, they do make it important that you be able to show and explain how their off-duty post violated your policies.

Discipline and termination always come with some risk. But you can reduce that risk by having documentation that shows the legitimate business reason for the discipline or termination.

Top Tip: The First Amendment to the US Constitution does not protect employee speech in private-sector workplaces. Meaning, unless you’re a public agency, the First Amendment is not relevant at work. Learn more about important laws that may impact your business here.

4. Circle back

Assuming you do take disciplinary action for the comment, we recommend letting the person that contacted you know. Circling back to let them know that you have dealt with the situation may help further de-escalate the situation.

Don’t worry, you can keep this broad! No need to share all the details.

5. Company-wide communication

After responding to this specific employee and their statement, now would also be a good time to consider addressing your entire team. Your communication should cover expectations for professional use of social media and reiterating the company’s stance on listing you as their employer on a social media page.

We typically recommend against regulating employees’ personal social media presence. However, you are certainly within your rights to outline guidelines and how you’ll handle situations as they arise.

Below is a sample internal communication you may want to consider, and you can find our complete policy on this topic by searching “Social Media” in the HR Support Center. Feel free to edit this policy to suit your needs and company culture.

Sample Internal Communication

[Company name] values our employees and their rights to privacy outside of work. With that said, it has come to our attention that some employees are making racially insensitive and offensive comments in public places on social media while having the company name publicly displayed on their profile.

Please note that [Company name] strives to maintain a diverse and professional work environment. Our goal is for all employees, regardless of race or other protected characteristics, to feel included and free from harassment and discrimination.

We do not monitor social media usage at the company level. However, in the event an inappropriate post or comment is brought to our attention, we will investigate the situation and take action as if the comment was made in a work environment.

If you choose to list [Company name] as your employer on your profile, please be aware that you may be seen as representing the company in your comments, especially on public pages and articles. We in no way require or expect you to list your work information on your social media profile. If you intend to engage in risky or offensive behavior online, we recommend that you remove or restrict your employer and other personally identifiable information accordingly. However, keep in mind that even without our company listed on your profile, the internet makes this information easily accessible.

Please use this time to review our social media policy for further information as well as our harassment prevention policy. If you feel you have been harassed or discriminated against at work, we sincerely ask that you report this conduct to your manager or [contact name/number], so we may investigate thoroughly and take steps to prevent further harm.

What Do You Think?

How has your business responded to issues of racism in light of recent events? Have you or someone you know witnessed a racist statement from an employee online? If so, how did you respond?

For more resources to manage your employees and create a strong company culture of inclusivity, log on to our HR Support Center. (Free for all SDP clients!) And don’t forget to follow us out on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn for even more business tips & tricks!

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