Monday, October 24, 2016

For how long should we judge people by a few intemperate comments?

Over the last few weeks we've seen several prime examples of individuals being judged and convicted by comments they made at some point in the past.

Most would now be aware of the leaked tape of Donald Trump and Billy Bush, whose 'locker room talk' recorded in 2005 has led to an exodus of support and new sexual harassment claims against the US Presidential Candidate, and Bush's exit as a NBC News anchor. Trump has said that 'no-one respects women more than him' and apologised for his words, stating they were merely words and that he'd never act in such a way (prompting a number of women to come forward with examples of a pattern of behaviour).

Some may also be aware that last week Twitter fired Greg Gopman after a month, when TechCrunch republished one of Gopman's Facebook comments from 2013, in which he called homeless people 'trash'. Subsequently to his comment, and before the Twitter firing, Gopman had quickly apologised and taken a number of actions to help the homeless community in his city.

Without commenting on the merits of either sequence of events, I believe that society, and organisations, need to seriously consider how to manage intemperate comments by individuals and their ongoing impact on lives.

We now live in a world where almost any comment may be recorded and kept indefinitely - and can resurface at anytime.

These comments may be said in the heat of the moment and later repented, or may form part of a long-term pattern of behaviour that defines an individual's approach and thinking.

However in the hothouse of modern media, context is quickly lost. The distinction between a pattern of abuse or bad character and an occasional momentary weakness or bad behaviour rarely survives a media and social media scrum.

Even positive or neutral comments, or a moment in time video, recording or photo , when used out of context, can have a devastating impact on an individual's future prospects, their ability to contribute to society, as well as on their family, friends and employer.

With teenagers experimenting with social norms in public social channels, and fast-shifting social norms catching older people out for unwise comments made decades ago, few of us can truly say that none of our past comments cannot, and will never, be used against us.

Moving forward do we want to be a society where we drag everyone down to the worst versions of ourselves - where we glory in ripping and tearing others apart for momentary lapses of judgement, fast regretted?

Or do we wish to be a society that glories in redemption, that allows people to make mistakes, correct them and move forward and upwards to their best selves - provided they actually do.

Organisations need to decide when they will they stand behind individuals who make a few mistakes and correct themselves, even in the face of a media storm. They need to decide where to draw the line between intemperate mistakes and intolerable character flaws and patterns.

Otherwise we're heading toward a society where there's no second chances, no room to grow and improve from one's 17 year old self. A society where those of truly bad character conceal themselves and thrive (even into high office) by claiming that everyone who has ever made a mistake is just as bad as them.

The first step required is to have that conversation - in the media and in organisations. We should not 'walk past' a discussion and simply seek to control information in the hope of protecting otherwise good people from the mistakes of their past.

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

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