Gender activism, trolls and being fired for tweeting

One of the big stories online this last week involves objectionable jokes, a tweet, a blog post, a lot of trolls and a couple people being fired in the aftermath of it all. This is a cautionary story for a number of reasons. It has implications for gender activism, free expression and employment-related concerns we have been seeing percolating in various judicial and administrative fora for a couple years.

What Happened

The protagonist is Adria Richards who was one of the many attendees at the PyCon conference and this is her introduction to the events that sparked the controversy in her post titled “Forking and Dongle Jokes Don’t Belong at Tech Conferences“:

Have you ever had a group of men sitting right behind you making joke that caused you to feel uncomfortable? Well, that just happened this week but instead of shrinking down in my seat, I did something about it an here’s my story…

Yesterday, I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.

For those of you visiting from Hacker News from the tweet and from this post, thanks for stopping by. Enjoy the context.

I tweeted a photo of the guys behind me:

I publicly asked for help with addressing the problem:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsI tweeted the PyCon Code of Conduct page and began to contacting the PyCon staff via text message:

and I’m happy to say that PyCon responded quickly not just with words but with action and a public response:

She explained further, in her “back story” explanation that one of the two men passed a comment about one of the speakers which Richards agreed with. She responded to him and the conversation quickly led to the jokes she objected to:

The guy behind me to the far left was saying he didn’t find much value from the logging session that day. I agreed with him so I turned around and said so. He then went onto say that an earlier session he’d been to where the speaker was talking about images and visualization with Python was really good, even if it seemed to him the speaker wasn’t really an expert on images. He said he would be interested in forking the repo and continuing development.

The man’s companion passed a comment about “forking” (a term used in software development for creating software code derivatives) and “dongles” which Richards objected to on the basis of the apparent sexual innuendo and in the context of what she saw as a broader gender issue in the technology field where there are relatively few women developers and technologists compared to men. She turned and took a photo of the men and posted her tweet which the conference organisers saw and followed up on.

Dismissals

One of the men behind Richards was subsequently dismissed by his employer, Playhaven. Playhaven’s CEO intimated that the reason his company dismissed the employee may not have been solely because of the jokes –

It has come to our attention that a topic concerning a former PlayHaven employee has generated a passionate online debate.

There are a number of inaccuracies being reported and I would like to take this opportunity to provide some clarity.

PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and as a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go. We value and protect the privacy of our employees, both past and present, and we will not comment on all the factors that contributed to our parting ways.

The, as yet, unnamed man posted a comment on Hacker News where he took responsibility for the “dongles” comments and contextualised the “forking” comments. He also defended Richards to a degree –

Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. However, there is another side to this story. While I did make a big dongle joke about a fictional piece hardware that identified as male, no sexual jokes were made about forking. My friends and I had decided forking someone’s repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation) and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said “I would fork that guys repo” The sexual context was applied by Adria, and not us.

My second comment is this, Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job.

She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate. Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.

I will be at pycon 2014, I will joke and socialize with everyone but I will also be mindful of my audience, accidental or otherwise.

Again, I apologize.

Richards initially believed that her employer, SendGrid, supported her stance but she was also dismissed

Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers. As we continue to process the vast amount of information, we will post something more comprehensive.

SendGrid’s CEO published an explanation for Richards’ dismissal on his company’s blog in which he, essentially, indicated that Richards’ actions were inconsistent with her role as a developer evangelist at his company and it would not be appropriate to retain her given the manner in which she addressed her concerns –

On Sunday at PyCon, Adria Richards felt comments made behind her during a conference session were inappropriate and of an offensive, sexual nature. We understand that Adria believed the conduct to be inappropriate and support her right to report the incident to PyCon personnel. To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behavior, whenever and wherever it occurs.

What we do not support was how she reported the conduct. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation. Even PyCon has since updated their Code of Conduct due to this situation. Needless to say, a heated public debate ensued. The discourse, productive at times, quickly spiraled into extreme vitriol.

A SendGrid developer evangelist’s responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.

In the end, the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger. Our commitment to our 130 employees, their families, our community members and our more than 130,000 valued customers is our primary concern.

Backlash Online

The responses to Richards’ tweets and the events that followed has been fairly varied. According to The Verge’s post titled “Thug mentality: How two dick jokes exploded into DDoS and death threats” –

Playhaven has since backed off on the story, claiming the firing happened for a number of reasons — but by then, the torches had been lit. A Pastebin post this morning promised an Anonymous-affiliated attack — “an explosion of lulz and collateral damage.” The only way to forestall the damage, the message said, was to fire Richards. 4chan’s /pol/ board also promised an attack. Shortly after, a massive DDoS attack brought down Sendgrid.com, and forced Richards to shield her personal site behind Cloudflare’s anti-DDoS service.
A few hours later, Sendgrid announced it had fired Richards, effective immediately. With no site to post on, they had to make the announcement on Facebook, saying “we have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid.” A little after 3:30 EST, the site came back online.

Addressing Important Social Issues

As The Verge and other commentators pointed out, the important issues are at risk of being lost in the flamewar that has erupted online –

But any legitimate questions have already been lost in the flood of vitriol against Richards, including outright death threats. Nearly 200 comments have been left on Sendgrid’s Facebook post, including a number of racial epithets. (Richards is African-American.) Hacker News has been aggressively moderating the discussion, and has deleted a number of threads on the topic. Seeking to repair the damage, a number of figures have already come forward to offer Richards a job.
It has all the hallmarks of a flamewar, a conversation dominated by the loudest and most offensive voices. The conversation has become an echo chamber of horrible, with the worst offenses of each side trotted out in place of anything resembling equanimity. Defending Richards — a woman who, it bears repeating, is still receiving racially motivated death threats — is seen as equivalent to casting a father of three into the poorhouse. She “got him fired,” as a thousand comments will remind you. Playhaven, the company which did the actual firing, seems to have gotten off scot-free, in both the comments sections and the Anon-affiliated chat rooms of the world. As it turns out, sometimes the internet is a terrible place.
What we most want, across the board, is for this not to have happened. It was such a simple joke, in the beginning — the kind of thing high school boys tell, before enough women call them out on it and they stop. Why couldn’t Richards have called them out the same way? Over and over, observers have put forward the same fantasy, in which Richards talks to the developers face-to-face, they fess up, and the whole thing lives and dies as a quiet argument in the tenth row of an otherwise-boring tech conference.
But in a world where thousands of anonymous men can instantly gather to deliver swift retribution against any perceived threat, it’s easy to understand why more women don’t speak out.

From a Legal Perspective

The legal issues here are perhaps not as exciting as the raging debate and threats but they are important nonetheless. One of the central themes in the blog posts by both companies, Playhaven and SendGrid, is that employees who fail to fulfil their obligations towards their employers can be dismissed. In both Richards’ and Playhaven’s ex-employee’s cases, both individuals brought their employers into disrepute through their actions and, in this respect, exposed themselves to disciplinary action.

Employees owe their employers a number of duties and they can be disciplined if they fail to honour their obligations towards their employers. Employees’ duties include the duties to –

  • further the employer’s business interests;
  • be respectful and obedient; and
  • not to bring the employer into disrepute.

This last duty has received considerable attention in recent complaints brought to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration including the case of Sedick & another and Krisray (Pty) Ltd (2011) 32 ILJ 752 (CCMA) where the commissioner upheld the employees’ dismissals and commented as follows:

Taking into account all the circumstances – what was written; where the comments were posted; to whom they were directed, to whom they were available and last but by no means least, by whom they were said – I find that the comments served to bring the management into disrepute with persons both within and outside the employment and that the potential for damage to that reputation amongst customers, suppliers and competitors was real.

and

This case emphasizes the extent to which employees may, and may not, rely on the protection of statute in respect of their postings on the Internet. The Internet is a public domain and its content is, for the most part, open to anyone who has the time and inclination to search it out. If employees wish their opinions to remain private, they should refrain from posting them on the Internet.

In this particular case Richards’ actions were interpreted by her employer as being a failure to both act in the role she was hired to fill, namely as a developer evangelist and to “build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe”. Tweeting and blogging her concerns in the manner she did appears to be inconsistent with her employer’s expectations of appropriate responses to the comments and, translating this into a South African context, she would have failed in her duties to further her employer’s business interests and not to bring her employer into disrepute.

The Playhaven ex-employee similarly failed in his duties towards his employer and, in a South African context, would likely have been found to have brought his employer into disrepute through his “inappropriate” comments. Whether the comments were serious enough to merit dismissal may be arguable although this controversy has clearly highlighted the strong views on both sides. While this took place in a different jurisdiction, the result may have been similar were these two individuals South African employees representing South African companies. Another issue to bear in mind is that companies can also be vicariously liable for their employees’ actions and this could well extend to an employee’s social updates online.

The lesson to take away from this is that employees should be more mindful of what they tweet, particularly in a public context where their comments could be attributed to their employers.

Below is a Storify with links and additional stories.

//storify.com/pauljacobson/gender-activism-trolls-and-being-fired-for-tweetin.js[<a href=”//storify.com/pauljacobson/gender-activism-trolls-and-being-fired-for-tweetin” target=”_blank”>View the story “Gender activism, trolls and being fired for tweeting at PyCon 2013″ on Storify</a>]<h1>Gender activism, trolls and being fired for tweeting at PyCon 2013</h1><h2>The story about Adria Richards’ tweets about jokes she found objectionable at PyCon 2013 is a cautionary tale that has implications for gender activists, free expression and employees’ responsibilities towards their employers.</h2><p>Storified by <a href=”http://storify.com/pauljacobson”>Paul Jacobson</a>&middot; Fri, Mar 22 2013 01:39:22</p>

The events

Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and "big" dongles. Right behind me #pycon http://pic.twitter.com/Hv1bkeOsYPAdria Richards
The tweet that sparked the controversy
Forking and Dongle Jokes Don’t Belong At Tech Conferences http://butyoureagirl.com/14015/forking-and-dongle-jokes-dont-belong-at-tech-conferences/Adria Richards
Richards expanded on her tweet with a blog post
Addressing PyConIt has come to our attention that a topic concerning a former PlayHaven employee has generated a passionate online debate. There are a number of inaccuracies being reported and I would like to take this opportunity to provide some clarity.
Playhaven dismissed its employee in response to the controversy
Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to s… | Hacker NewsMy second comment is this, Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility.
The Playhaven employee who was in the photo responded to the controversy
SendGrid StatementEffective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee
SendGrid dismissed Richards due to an apparent incompatibility with her role as a “developer evangelist”.
A Difficult SituationWow. This week has been extremely challenging for all. We want to give you our perspective on this complicated situation, so here goes… On Sunday at PyCon, Adria Richards felt comments made behind her during a conference session were inappropriate and of an offensive, sexual nature.

Perspectives from the media and other commentators

PlayHaven on fired sex-joke developer: it wasn’t just one issueMobile gaming monetization company PlayHaven says that it fired a developer for multiple issues, not just the sexual jokes at the recent Python Conference that have stirred up a forest of controversy. "This has really just spiraled out of control on a lot of levels," a company representative told me over the phone this morning.
Breaking: Adria Richards fired by SendGrid for outting developers on TwitterEmail delivery company SendGrid has fired developer evangelist Adria Richards for outting developers on Twitter who were making sexual jokes during a conference. The company made a statement on its Facebook account: Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards.
Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All LostAdria Richards was an attendee at PyCon, a tech conference, as part of her job as a developer evangelist at Sendgrid, a tech company that manages emails. She took offense to a conversation two men, also developers for a company called Play Haven, were having behind her during the conference, in which they referenced "dongles"…
Thug mentality: How two dick jokes exploded into DDoS and death threatsSunday afternoon, Adria Richards was sitting in a lecture hall at Python’s Pycon conference when she heard something that didn’t feel right. In the row behind her, a pair of attendees were telling jokes about "forking a repo," and the benefits of a large dongle.
@skwashd you should put something in your pants next time…like a bunch of socks inside one…large…sock. TSA agent faintAdria Richards
This tweet from earlier in the conference was mentioned on Hacker News in support of a contention that Richards is a “fraud”.
Sedick & another and Krisray (Pty) Ltd (2011) 32 ILJ 752 (CCMA) – Full JudgementSedick & another and Krisray (Pty) Ltd (2011) 32 ILJ 752 (CCMA) Bennett, Commissioner: Particulars of proceedings and representation [1] A conciliation/arbitration (con/arb) hearing was convened on 11 D October 2010 at the Darling Street, Cape Town offices of the CCMA Western Cape. [2] Applicants (Sedick/De Reuck) represented themselves.
This is an important decision in South African law on Internet posts and employees’ duties.
How tweeting can get you firedMail & Guardian had a story a week or so ago about rugby commentator Andrew Lanning’s dismissal by SuperSport after he tweeted information about SuperSport and its parent company, Multichoice. The article’s title, " Fired for tweeting", was a little misleading (the article clarified the issue, though) and that idea of being fired for using Twitter no doubt caught readers’ attention.

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