In an era where mud sticks like glue, corporate tolerance has waned to such a degree that the need to keep hard-fought reputations is outweighing respect for human fallibility. 

Careers and hard-won professional reputations built over many decades can come tumbling down overnight after off-the cuff-comments or even private messages sent to a colleague are made public, overshadowing years of hard work.  

And the corporations they work for often seek to condemn, seek a resignation and shuffle talent out the door than chalk it up as an error of judgment, forgive and move on.   

Tasmanian Attorney-General Elise Archer was forced to resign after one leaked message to the media appeared to be an exasperated reference to victim-survivors of child sexual abuse. Archer was not given the opportunity to challenge the claims made against her and is adamant that the messages were taken out of context.  

Another study found 312 news articles about people who had been fired due to a social media post. These included teachers fired after coming out as bisexual on Instagram, and a retail employee let go over a racist post on Facebook.  

While racism was the most common reason workers were fired in these news stories, other forms of discriminatory behaviour included posts about workplace conflict, bad jokes, insensitive posts, acts of violence and even political content. Of course, there’s no doubt of dozens more cases that aren’t even made public.  

Are companies too quick to condemn?

The blurred lines between knowingly behaving unethically at work and comments shared without our permission raises the question of whether corporations are too quick to condemn indiscretions in favour of their reputation. While public trust in elected officials is critical, it’s also important to remember that these officials are also human beings. 

As workplaces are prioritising accountability and ethical standards to ensure safe and productive environments, too often we are seeing errors of judgement costing hard-working professionals their reputation, not to mention their future earning potential after they are ousted from their job.  

It begs the question: What ever happened to an individuals’ right to make a mistake and for the rest of society not to leave them out in the cold forever? Have we come to a point where our inner thoughts and feelings shared in private are indicative of our ability to do our job?  

Where we draw the line

Despite private messages being made public costing people their jobs and reputations, career coach Renata Bernarde believes that private messages should remain private and usually aren’t a true reflection of our ability to do our job.  

“When leaked, we can see that private messages can offer glimpses into someone’s personal thoughts and feelings, which might be expressed without the filter they would use in a professional setting. That said, if private messages reveal behaviours or beliefs that directly contradict the values and responsibilities of their public role, it’s a valid concern. For instance, a diversity and inclusion leader advocating for equality should not have private messages showcasing prejudice.”  

However, Bernarde urges corporations to avoid blanket penalties, saying we need to be cautious about using isolated messages out of context to vilify individuals. “It’s essential to consider the entirety of the person’s character and contributions,” she says.  

The art of corporate forgiveness

There are occasional cases of corporate forgiveness. Western Australian man Cameron Waugh was charged with six counts of insider trading and was released on bail. He has since appointed the interim CEO of a company that’s obviously deemed his skills more valuable.   

While forgiveness and the opportunity to secure a new job after misconduct is complex and multifaceted, human resources and emotional resilience expert Shane Warren says that it’s important that workplaces acknowledge that making a mistake pertains to the psychological and emotional harm caused by actions that violate one’s deeply held moral beliefs. 

“Any doctrine of faith reminds us that human fallibility is an inherent part of our nature, and the capacity to make mistakes is universal. The idea that an individual who has ‘stuffed up’ should not be punished indefinitely for errors resonates with our core principles of fairness and modern desire to embrace personal growth.”    

However, Warren admits that balancing the need for accountability with the recognition of our humanity can be challenging. Nevertheless, fostering a culture of learning, growth and restorative justice can help strike a more equitable balance between accountability and compassion in any workplace, he says. 

The process of forgiveness and reintegration into the workforce should ideally involve steps such as acknowledging wrongdoing, seeking rehabilitation or counselling, demonstrating genuine remorse and showing a sustained commitment to personal growth and ethical behaviour. The timing for a new job may vary depending on individual circumstances and the severity of the misconduct, he says.  

“Perhaps instead, society needs to bear in mind that everyone is fallible. If indiscretions or mistakes happen, when addressed and an apology is allowed to be given, it can lead to greater resilience, better understanding and personal and professional development.”