Hate speech: how should bosses tackle staff who make harmful online comments?

02 July 2015 -


As a Wall Street exec pays out £11.5m for smearing a former intern, we look at how managers can prevent online abuse among staff

Jermaine Haughton

A high-powered Wall Street boss was ordered this week to pay out $18 million (£11.5m) to a former intern for “slut shaming” her on a website he owned.

The headine-grabbing lawsuit has highlighted the cost – both human and financial – of online bullying, hate speech and abuse in the workplace.

In the case, 43-year-old Benjamin Wey – CEO of finance firm New York Global Group – stood accused of writing on his website The Blot Magazine that ex-employee Hanna Bouveng was “a prostitute”, who “hangs out with cocaine dealers” and is “a terrible person”.

According to Bouveng, Wey’s online abuse was part of a “relentless” campaign to have sex with her. Bouveng also claimed that Wey’s smears had affected her family, after he sent a scathing email to her father containing a host of allegations about her sexual lifestyle.

Significantly, Bouveng’s win came just 48 hours after the parliament of New Zealand passed a long-debated Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which aims to penalise individuals who use social media, email, text messages and other digital media to launch attacks on others. Offences under the new package of laws include posting invasive or distressing photographs, spreading damaging or degrading rumours and carrying out campaigns of online harassment or intimidation.

Public awareness of online hate speech has surged in recent weeks, with the FBI’s investigation of US website LastRhodesian.com – thought to have been founded and operated by Dylann Roof, the suspect charged with murdering nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Several photographs on the site depict Roof posing with a Confederate flag and a gun, while the site’s text consists of a hateful manifesto ruminating on the ratio of blacks to whites in Charleston.

Speaking to Insights, Ben Wood – head of digital marketing at SEO specialists Hallam Internet – said: “We suggest at the most basic level that employers need to make it clear to staff what they class as unacceptable behaviour. It’s hugely important for modern businesses to educate employees on the damage this can have on their brand image, which is why many companies we work with have social media policies for employees. They outline what the companies expect from their staff.”

Regarding the Wey case, Wood explained: “the employee has commented on a fellow member of staff, and I believe this could have been avoided if the employee had been made aware of the pitfalls via company-specific guidelines. If offensive comments didn’t relate to a fellow member of staff, or the company that employed the individual making the comments, then the ramifications for the business and its staff may not be as severe. However, any colleagues who see such comments online may still be offended, which would no doubt cause issues within the business itself – something that could negatively impact upon staff morale and cause friction between staff members.”

Wood added that, for line managers dealing with such incidents, “I would recommend having a sensitive conversation with the individual in question to remind them of their responsibility to the business and the potential damage their comments could have. Not everyone has the same opinions on religion, gender or sexuality. However, by posting comments online while visibly linked to an employer, the employee is putting the firm’s reputation at risk.

“A well-formed social media policy would put the power in the hands of the employer, which is why I think it's important for all businesses to take the time to develop and circulate specific guidelines to avoid potential damages.”

For more thoughts on developing values-based cultures, read CMI’s report The MoralDNA of Performance.

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