My title may be facetious, but reminding people to avoid being “offensive” on the internet is tantamount to asking them to stay off the internet. Nevertheless, United Airlines has reminded employees that racially-charged or offensive speech online is not acceptable. The devil is in the details.
United Airlines “Offensive” Speech Memo
In a memo sent to employees entitled “Carrying ourselves with dignity and respect,” United reminds employees that they must avoid offensive speech online.
Dignity and respect are not optional
We work to promote a safe and inclusive environment. It’s valuable to bring together people from different backgrounds who express different views, but we need to pay attention to our words and how they may impact our diverse population of employees and customers. It’s not okay to say (or post) things that are offensive or racially charged. This applies when using social media, when posting comments on Flying Together, and when simply having conversations. And where social media is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether your post is public or within a closed group – nothing on the internet is truly private or anonymous. Use common sense and good judgment, and if you have any doubt about whether or not what you’re saying or posting may be offensive, you probably want to avoid it.
This isn’t a First Amendment issue, by the way. We’re not talking about the government regulating speech. Nevertheless, talk about a moving target. What you and I view as “offensive” speech may be view quite differently than others, and vice-versa.
Employees are asked to use “common sense” and “good judgment” when posting online. If there are any doubts over offensiveness, avoid it.
Hasn’t the last week shown us that sometimes we need to speak truth, even when it hurts? Calling those who breached the Capitol on January 6th “insurrectionists” instead of “protestors” causes offensive in some quarters. But it needs to be said. Calling those who burn and loot “thugs” is bound to incur pushback, but that’s exactly what they are.
Thus, in a hyperpartisan world whatever you say on any issue of the day is bound to cause offensive. Heck, sometimes even my coffee posts cause offense.
And thus I view this memo not so much as a chilling attack on free speech, but as an unreasonable and arbitrary moving target that gives employees no “safe harbor” beyond staying off the internet. This problem is hardly unique to United Airlines. Indeed, it is a common problem in corporate America.
The memo later says:
It’s never okay to criticize others on the basis of race, gender, age or any other protected category. This includes conduct within the workplace, as well as outside of the workplace and on social media. We take this very seriously. Employees who violate this policy may be subject to discipline up to and including termination.
This is clearer, but still problematic. Stick to the Capitol insurrection for a moment. Say someone posts a defense of the insurrection on the basis of “our heritage is being taken from us.” Is an employee not breaking the rules by calling out that racially-motivated bigotry?
Sometimes we have to operate within the nuances of a complicated world. I understand that it is difficult to clearly lay out every possible instance of right and wrong in any context, let alone in an employee memo. But I do not think the answer to society’s woes is to retreat from dialogue. And that dialogue will indeed cause offense. But it is only when we wrestle with that which is uncomfortable that we will reach a new level of understanding and eventually the sort of mutual respect and tranquility that all decent people strive for.