Ethics In Practice Case Better Check Your Old Yearbooks and Social Media Posts
In 2019, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia faced perhaps the biggest crisis of his political career when a photo of the governor from his 1984 medical school yearbook showed a man dressed in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. When the photo came to light, the governor first apologized, then said it was not him, and then divulged that he had once darkened his skin as part of a Michael Jackson costume. Eventually, he acknowledged appearing in the “clearly racist and offensive photograph” and asked his constituents to forgive him.
This was not the first political figure to have his character questioned, based on old yearbook information. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was questioned extensively during his appointment hearing, when his personal yearbook page boasted, “100 Kegs or Bust,” and some interpreted his references to a young woman as boasting about a conquest. Justice Kavanaugh vehemently denied the allegation before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Of course, old yearbook pictures are not the only potential source of reputational damage. Inflammatory tweets and social media postings are as well.
Incidents like this that involve offensive and damaging images surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation, or sexual acts increase the need for human resources departments to improve their due diligence when vetting employees. Additionally, in light of heightened social movements like the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing sensitivity to racial justice issues, many employers are doing background checks and screening candidates’ social media histories as part of their hiring processes. In fact, some of these screenings for senior level and board hires can go back 25 years or more.
- What are the ethical issues here?
- Is it fair to hold someone accountable for something they did years ago? Should there be a statute of limitations on how far back it is fair to go?
- What is an appropriate way to respond to allegations from old yearbook testaments or social media posts? Is it okay to say “I was (just) young at the time”? What is the appropriate response to such allegations?