By James Morley
A quick scan of a newspaper, a blog, or an online news source will have you seeing the same phrase on a regular basis: “calling for them to be fired”. It seems to crop up on a regularity that is unique to our modern world. There has always been scandal amongst public figures and high-profile business leaders, and there have always been calls for resignation or sacking. However, in our modern, interconnected, social media-filled world, it seems to have become a national pastime to start insisting that people be fired for their indiscretions and mistakes, even when these did not take place whilst they were in their current role.
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Alexi McCammond was due to take the reins of Teen Vogue in March of this year, but racist tweets she posted at the age of 17 resurfaced and led to a social media firestorm that forced her to not take the position. Steve Turner, the PCC for Middlesbrough, is being urged to leave his job after it was revealed he accepted a police caution in the 1990s for a minor offence related to his job in Safeway, a company that no longer exists. These are just two recent examples of a laundry list of people who are facing calls for their career to end because of past mistakes.
There are also plenty of public figures who the internet wants to fire because of failures whilst on the job. Most recently, Phillip Allot, another PCC, has been urged to resign after making ignorant comments about female safety in the wake of the Sarah Everard case. Whilst these three cases exemplify unacceptable behaviour, one must question whether ending a person’s job is the appropriate response to them.
Each has its own nuances too. I could argue that Alexi was a child when she posted racist comments and should be allowed to prove herself as an adult. I could argue that Steve’s transgression was close to 30 years ago and that the victim of his crime (Safeway) doesn’t even exist anymore. I could point out that whilst Phillip’s comments were ignorant and hurtful, they were likely rooted in desperate ignorance and not malice.
However, delving into the specifics of each case would miss the bigger picture: the inevitable storm that is brewing with the rise of “sack ‘em culture”. The biggest problem with the constant calls for people to resign is it is profoundly illiberal. Liberalism is built on the idea that individuals can change; that they are free thinking, rational agents who can learn from mistakes, grow, and improve. The concept of the second chance is central to liberalism. When you call for someone to be sacked immediately after a mistake happens or is found, you are admitting that you have given up on convincing that person not to make those errors again. It is symptomatic of a culture that has given up on winning the argument and simply content to subjugate those who they identify as their opponents.
The other problem is that it creates a culture where being removed from a position of employment is seen as a legitimate social reprimand for unacceptable behaviour. This is further blurring the line between a person’s personal/social existence and their status as an employee. This is dangerous, not just for magazine editors and PCCs but for everyone out there working hard to just stay afloat, or at the start of a promising career. When the criteria for keeping a job or growing in a role is doing well, carrying out required tasks, and meeting or exceeding targets, then you have a meritocracy where anyone can succeed and dismissing staff is difficult if they do their job well. That is the workplace that young people deserve. Instead, they are subject to increasingly insecure and unstable workplaces.
There are multiple ways in which work is more insecure for young people these days: Zero-hour contracts have skyrocketed; young people are forced to hold multiple jobs; pay has flatlined; and unions are toothless in most industries. What young people need is to not have their past mistakes or personal indiscretions used against them in their workplace. Social media has already been the root of multiple dismissals, even where the workplace was not even mentioned, let alone defamed.
It is not the elites or those in high paying, high profile jobs that will suffer. They may lose the office and title, but they will find work quickly in other institutions, likely being paid better. Jeremy Clarkson punched a man and, even though he was let go from the BBC, he has been given the opportunity and creative license to storm Amazon Prime and make millions. It will be the junior assistant at a small firm who makes a mistake on social media, or gets filmed being an idiot in public, who will have their future set back by a decade or never be able to get more than an insecure job delivering for Uber Eats.
We need to separate a person’s job security from their private character, but that does not mean we stop holding public figures to account. Where people have been racist, caused harm, been ignorant and bigoted there should be a social mechanism to hold them accountable. Their employer can play a role in that, acting as a conduit for communication between the public and the individual. The best approach would be some form of restorative justice, an approach made famous in South Africa and now embedded in justice systems across the world, including the UK and the US. The aim of the approach is to create a genuine and meaningful dialogue between wrongdoers and those they have caused suffering to. It is a dialogue that focuses on building bonds, showing people the real impact of their actions, and giving them a way to make amends that is more personal and genuine than an apology and a resignation or sacking. It allows them to change, to own up to their mistakes and hopefully, never engage in hurtful behaviour again.
Bringing public figures to the table, making them feel and show remorse, and making them find personal, appropriate ways to help those they have hurt will be more impactful than simply watching them lose their job: victims will have gained a new ally, changing a mind in the process; people who previously used their platform to hurt, will have used it to heal; and we lose the culture of job insecurity linked to personal flaws that can only hurt young people.
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