Should Employees Be Fired in Response to Mass Social Media Outrage? | Opinion

Amy Cooper acted reprehensibly. In a 911 call, she claimed, "there is a man, African-American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog." As it turns out, she was merely asked to leash her dog, in line with the policy of the Ramble at Central Park. The 57-year-old black man, Christian Cooper (unrelated), whom she falsely accused, captured the incident on video.

The video went viral and Amy was the focus of mass social media outrage. The hashtags #CentralParkAmy and #FireHer were trending. Franklin Templeton, Amy's employer, did indeed fire her the next day.

After watching the video, I, like the tens of millions of those who viewed the footage, was disturbed by Amy's conduct. My initial reaction was righteous satisfaction at her swift termination. But sometimes our first instincts about what constitutes a just response can lead us ethically astray.

Was Franklin Templeton ethically justified in firing her?

Assuming Amy's employment was at-will, Franklin Templeton had the legal right to terminate her. But pointing to this legal right does not alone justify the termination: there are better and worse ways in which legal rights can be exercised. So, the question remains, was firing her ethical?

Like many questions in ethics, the issue is thorny. While the case in favor of firing her may seem clear, there are also some largely under-appreciated ethical considerations that weigh against firings in response to mass social media outrage.

Many ethicists regard blame to be an appropriate response to wrongdoing. But blame can sometimes be unjust: notably, when blaming individuals beyond what they deserve.

If someone berates me on a train in a way that is clearly wrongful, I'd be justified in blaming that person—and perhaps nearby passengers would be, too. But should those in neighboring train cars walk over and blame that person? And when the person exits the train, should those waiting on the platform and the custodians blame that person? Finally, the street food vendors and taxi drivers—should they blame that person too?

Even when a person has acted wrongly, there must be a limit to how much blame wrongdoers can justifiably be subjected to. Surely, Amy deserved blame—even a significant amount of blame. This is especially so, given the backdrop of her being a white woman claiming that a black man was threatening her—she exposed Christian to a heightened risk of death, injury and unjust imprisonment at the hands of law enforcement.

But there must be some point at which blaming her would be excessive. Otherwise, this would mean that one wrongdoing can justifiably subject an individual to limitless blame, from limitless people, and indefinitely.

Employers, too, can express blame. One of the ways they can do this is through firing an employee. But when an employee is at the center of mass social media outrage, the employer is already aware that the employee has been blamed by hundreds of thousands of people. Amidst this global outrage, the employer's added blame through firing risks being undeserved and thus wrong. This provides employers with a strong moral reason not to fire the employee.

When Amy's employer fired her, it announced, "We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton." Businesses, of course, should not tolerate racism. But what exactly does not tolerating something require?

It doesn't always seem to require the most severe available response. For example, the state should not tolerate car theft. But not tolerating car theft does not require incarcerating the thief for life. Car theft is obviously different, in kind, from Amy's conduct; the point is merely that not tolerating something doesn't always require imposing the harshest available sanction.

And being fired is indeed harsh. There is extensive research about the serious physical and psychological harms that individuals experience when fired, quite apart from the monetary losses from forgone income.

Moreover, there were several ways Franklin Templeton could have indicated that they do not tolerate racism. They could have condemned her conduct through a formal reprimand, suspended her for an extended period, demoted her or cut her bonus and salary. It's simply false that the choice employers face is binary: between firing the employee or condoning the wrongdoing.

Upper West Side seen from Central Park
Upper West Side seen from Central Park Noam Galai/Getty Images

Those who insist that not tolerating racism requires firing the employee face a challenge: What should happen to Amy after the firing? Should one wrongdoing render her unemployable? This would be an odd view to champion, given that many of those who most vigorously call for firings in mass social media outrage contexts are often sympathetic to the moral importance of reintegrating into the workforce persons convicted of serious crimes.

By terminating Amy so soon after the incident, Franklin Templeton may not have even aptly confronted racism in the first place. It opted for a quick, easy, out-of-sight and out-of-mind approach to racism—rather than the careful and time-intensive process that the meaningful confrontation of racism demands.

And what about Christian's perspective? When Christian was asked to comment on Amy's apology, he stated that "if it's genuine and if she plans on keeping her dog on a leash in the Ramble going forward, then we have no issues with each other." Later, he noted that "if our goal is to change the underlying factors, I am not sure that this young woman having her life completely torn apart serves that goal."

This may not settle where Christian stands on Amy's firing. But surely the victim of the wrongdoing's perspective matters more than the perspective of outraged social media participants. Franklin Templeton should have considered Christian's perspective in its decision to fire Amy.

Still, firms are under significant pressure to fire an employee in response to mass social media outrage. Sometimes firms even regard themselves to be praiseworthy for firings, in such contexts. But the decision to fire an employee, even in response to conduct that is clearly wrongful, is itself a challenging ethical question—and one that requires careful consideration, rather than knee-jerk verdicts.

Vikram R. Bhargava is assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. His research is on the ethics and policy of business and technology.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.