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The Cancel Culture in the Workplace

The Thought Police in the Workplace

According to Dictionary.com, “Cancel culture is the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures or companies after doing something offensive or deemed to be so by one group or another.

When someone has been “canceled,” it means they cease to exist to that person. There is no communication with them or about them. Social media has had a hand in the increase of “canceling,” as it holds a great deal of power in getting a message across is such a short period of time.

The cancel culture as alive and well in the workplace. Earlier in the week I described what the cancel culture is and is not. In today’s blog I look at the causes of the cancel culture in the workplace.

The Many Faces of Cancel Culture

The cancel culture has changed the way we interact with each other especially on social media. One reason it has become widespread is the anonymity of the internet and not having to face the offending party in person. It is easier to cancel someone when online where you cannot see how your words affect others.

Cancel culture can take on many forms, but it typically begins with unresolved issues within the workplace. Disgruntled employees may seek to cancel the offending parties by calling them out on social media and even in chat rooms. Employers may cancel, and even fire, employees for their posts online at work or even in their personal lives. Today, there are no limits to the length some organizations will go to cancel employees for their words or actions.   

One of the first examples of the cancel culture at work was the case of Colin Kaepernick. Back in 2016, S.F. 49ers quarterback, Kaepernick, decided to kneel during the playing of the national anthem and set off a firestorm of criticism by an unsuspecting public. This was one of the first examples of the cancel culture at work and, certainly, the most famous one in the sports world.

The 49ers released Kaepernick even though he had taken the team to the Super Bowl. To this day, Kaepernick has been unable to secure a quarterback position on another team yet his style of play is illustrative of the standard for a quarterback today, which includes being able to scramble and avoid tacklers using their speed and agility.

Benefits and Harms Workplace ethics

One way to examine the ethics of the cancel culture is to evaluate the pros and cons of the behavior. Why do some people say it is a good practice?

  • Expressing oneself by taking others to task is part of the democratic process and free speech.
  • Cancelling others is a manifestation of holding others accountable for their behaviors.
  • Calling-out is one way to challenge provocateurs, who deliberately hurt others, or powerful people beyond our reach.

Those who argue against it make the following points.

  • Canceling someone is an attempt to stifle their free speech rights.
  • Tweeting against others in anger begets more anger and can lead to a more serious practices such as bullying.
  • Canceling raises the question of whether we should cancel everyone with whom we disagree? Where should the line be drawn or is it even possible to do so?

Cancelling an employee because of their words or actions is an ethical slippery slope. How can we draw a line between a legitimate action by an employer and stifling free speech?

Employer Responses

How should your company handle situations that could end in a cancellation?  My best advice is to pause before acting and reflect on what you are about to do and the possible consequences of such actions. The reaction of an employer sets a tone about how a company will handle instances of the cancel culture at work. Employees can take it as a signal of the culture of the workplace.

My advice is for employers to consider pausing before acting and consider the possible consequences for cancelling an employee. The way an employer responds will influence the behavior of employees. Employers need to get it right the first time or risk employee backlash.

Employers should gather as much information about the issue as possible and make a list of their options.  Here are some guidelines.

  • Consider whether there is a possibility to reconcile between the two parties involved in the conflict. 
  • Know the laws in your state regarding what employees can say on their personal social media. 
  • Know that there are no perfect people, and that employees and companies alike will make mistakes. 
  • Feel confident in swiftly terminating an employee when the situation calls for it.

Role of the Board of Directors

How companies handle cases will require boards of directors to step in, working closely with management, compliance, and human resources. There are numerous risks, not the least of which is to the reputation of the organization given the increased scrutiny by consumers and groups who can quickly mount negative publicity campaigns when they believe the firm has not acted appropriately.

Boards will need to monitor whistleblowing metrics which they receive from compliance and human resources, because of the likely increase in whistleblowing volumes on two fronts, says Young. A question to ask is are employees being targeted or cancelled because their views might be different? And what is management doing to investigate, through compliance, legal, and HR, since it is also a form of retaliation, raising legal issues which could escalate not only to the board, but also from a labor practice perspective.

The cancel culture is a logical extension of the political correctness that has plagued society for many years. It is like having a thought police to monitor one’s words and behaviors, even those that occurred years ago.

My main concern is we seem to have lost the ability to speak directly with each other, relying instead on the internet. It is a trend that is likely to continue well into the future because social media is the primary form of communication. My next blog will examine how social media influences cancelling behavior.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 4, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.

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