Adria Richards has been all over the news in the last week. If you’ve missed the story or don’t recognize her name Adria is an IT developer recently fired for tweeting a photo of a group of men at a technology conference, accusing them of making sexist remarks. Allegedly the men (who were sat behind Adria at the conference) made a remark about ‘big dongles’. To complete the picture, one of the accused men has also been fired from his job over the incident.
The CEO of the organisation Adria worked for has been reported as saying the company supports her right to report what she considered to be offensive sexual comments, but her use of social media contributed to her dismissal. “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…” Needless to say, a heated public debate ensued. The discourse, productive at times, quickly spiraled into extreme vitriol.
I have read a number of articles on this case with great interest including the broad range of opinions expressed by other readers. Some believe Adria is a courageous fighter for equality and women’s rights, while others accuse her of being a ‘precious princess’, self-righteous, over sensitive and malicious. Even the lawyers are weighing in on the debate, sharing their views on whether her sacking is a defensible action based on the reasonableness and lawfulness of her behaviour.
What strikes me is the absurdity of the entire situation; what appear to be overreactions from everyone involved are staggering and such a waste of energy. There is no doubt sexism, racism, ageism and all other forms of discrimination along with bullying and harassment are serious issues that must not be tolerated. However, a fair and reasonable approach to managing these issues is critical. It’s important not to overreact and make even marginal breaches of acceptable conduct bigger issues than they need to be – to use an age-old expression ‘the punishment must fit the crime’.
Let’s first look at how Adria herself behaved. I do wonder if she was just having a bad day or is typically so sensitive and aggressive in response. In the context of other challenges in life I struggle to understand how anyone would consider an arguably school boy joke about ‘dongles’ so important and outrageous… So offensive and damaging to the wellbeing of woman and their opportunities in life that the perpetrator is deserving of public naming and shaming?
An ‘excuse me, I find your comments offensive so can you please stop’ is a far more reasonable reaction. If they didn’t stop (among other options available to her) Adria could have moved away or reported them to the event manager. Maybe the guys she posted on the World Wide Web are nice people who made a naïve mistake. It’s possible they deeply respect woman and don’t typically make inappropriate comments but Adria had no way of knowing that before she chose to punish them with public humiliation.
Adria clearly cares about important issues and yet damaged her own credibility and in doing so diminished the strength of her own voice. Being hypersensitive or overreacting by acting as judge, jury and executioner rarely helps anyone to positively influence important issues. Adria appears to have given no consideration to the impact of her actions on the men involved. Consider the serious consequences of her actions for them relative to the childish nature of their behavior.
Then there is Adria’s employer. I doubt Adria needed to be fired as much as I doubt the accused needed to be fired from his job over this particular incident. It’s likely some degree of reprimand from Adria’s employer was in order and most certainly coaching on how she could have handled the situation more effectively. However, unless there are broader issues with her performance or conduct that I’m not aware of, I doubt leaping to the extremes of firing her was necessary or appropriate.
Finally there is the decision of the accused’s employer to fire him. It’s harder to judge the reasonableness of their actions without knowing if his behavior was one example of a bigger issue. If it was an isolated incident and he merely referred to ‘dongles’ in Adria’s earshot then a ‘your behavior is unbecoming, unprofessional and unacceptable so don’t do it again’ response would have been appropriate. If there have been other issues, perhaps a ‘pick up your act or your behavior will have serious consequences for your ongoing employment’ may have been the right next step to take. However, if he has been counseled repeatedly about similar or other inappropriate conduct then firing him wasn’t an overreaction and indeed the appropriate action to take.
To summarise, unless their actions were in response to issues beyond those reported about this particular incident, both employers overreacted. Maybe the employers overreacted because they feared a Board/shareholder/public/media overreaction and believed they needed to be seen as responding firmly? Everyone needs to play their part to enable people in business to behave reasonably and focus on issues that really matter.
It’s time for all of us in business to focus on the things that influence performance, impact the quality of people’s lives, the prosperity of our communities and health of our planet. Every individual and every leader needs to stop overreacting to challenges that arise, stop making mountains out of molehills and start being more resilient. We all need to focus our attention and expend our energy on things that are of real consequence.