ESPN vs. Jemele Hill: What Twitter-Loving Workers Can Learn

Monday afternoon’s headlines disheartened ESPN anchor Jemele Hill’s fan base:

Jemele Hill Suspended by ESPN After Response to Jerry Jones

It felt like a déjà vu with a bad ending: Hill’s tweets were sparking controversy again, and this time her company was not on her side. The SportsCenter co-host responded to reports that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, “If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” after weeks of players across the league taking a knee during the national anthem.

Sunday evening, Hill took to Twitter, suggesting that people frustrated with the coach’s stance stop criticizing players and instead hit the franchise where it would hurt: in its pockets. She went on to share tweets that listed advertisers who support the Cowboys, asking “how about not patronizing the advertisers who support the Cowboys? You can watch and do that, right?”

Around midday on Monday, Hill clarified that she wasn’t calling for an NFL or Cowboys boycott, but a protest of their advertisers. After all, a boycott of the sport itself could be a major blow to ESPN and her own show.

But it was already too late. ESPN’s public relations department released a statement that the company had suspended Hill for violating social media guidelines, although the broken rules were not specified.

The wording of the message seems to imply that this suspension is as much a punishment for the first offense as it is for the second one. Nonetheless, Hill is out for the next two weeks, presumably to think about her actions just like a child in timeout. While she does, employees in all career paths should consider what they can learn from this turn of events.

 

Steady your Twitter fingers

Hill’s tweets were sent on her own time from her own account (although it does list her job title in her bio). At the same time, she and every other ESPN employee, according to the company, was recently reminded of the company’s social media guidelines. Per their pat statement, this latest string of tweets (far less inflammatory than ones that got her in hot water last month) violated those guidelines.

Make no mistake: this is not to say that Jemele was wrong in tweeting what she did. In fact, her stance reflects the kind of action more people should take if they truly want to harness the buying power of communities of color. But active social media users who know their companies are watching their activity should think before pressing send. Based on her track record, Jemele thought before she tweeted, which means she’s still in trouble but likely isn’t wishing she’d kept her opinions offline. Interestingly enough, she doesn’t have that blanket disclaimer in her bio, warning “opinions are my own,” but based on this turn of events, it’s unlikely that phrase could do much to protect her—or any other employee of a company in this kind of situation.

 

Know your employer’s boundaries

It’s important to know what your company will think and do about your behavior. Sure, Hill is fearlessly opinionated and may have even seen this suspension coming, but she’s still being publicly punished. In the warzone that is today’s workplace, employees do themselves a service by staying one step ahead. If you think your words are worth whatever consequences may come, by all means, share them. Just know the potential ramifications ahead of time.

In this case, Jemele might have considered (like other journalists likely have) the way advertisers might react to her tweets. It doesn’t help AT&T or Pepsi for a high-profile journalist to threaten their pockets. As someone who called for fans and viewers to threaten those advertiser’s bottom lines, Hill knew the companies wouldn’t be happy. That was a risk it seems she was willing to take. What ESPN might have taken issue with was that her perceived threat toward those companies could damage the network’s relationships, burning bridges that might have led to ad dollars for their shows in the future.

 

Know your own limits—and your expectations

Ask yourself: If you were an ESPN anchor or correspondent, or any other kind of employee, would ESPN’s suspension of Jemele be reason enough for you to set your sights on a new opportunity? If you were her coworkers, how would you feel about the company in light of this decision? Hill’s cohost, Michael Smith, decided to sit out Monday’s SC6 broadcast. He undoubtedly does that knowing the company could lash out at him, perhaps not right now, but in the future. That leads us to the next lesson…

 

Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready (to leave)

Always know what could be next. It doesn’t mean you have to constantly interview for positions—although brushing up on interview skills periodically is smart even for those in long-term roles. It does, however, mean that you should know where you could and would want to go next. Your company might never face these kinds of moral tests, and might never act in a way that doesn’t jive with your beliefs, but it could face layoffs or new leadership that puts your employment into question. Rather than leave yourself at the mercy of your employer’s bottom line, keep one eye on your work and another on your prospects.

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