Oh dear, such good intentions but it lasted less than a week. 17-year-old Paris Brown resigned from her £15,000-a-year post as “adviser on youth” to Kent Police Commissioner Ann Barnes after the media discovered her various tweets about sex, drugs, alcohol and her online use of derogatory and discriminatory terms. Brown apologised for her “inappropriate” comments and noted that they were made at the tender age of 14-16 and had been taken “out of context” (of course they had).
Fronting up to the media storm, Ms Brown also added that “all teenagers make mistakes”. This is undeniably true, but in the good old days we could put our foolish childhood days safely behind us when we took on our first tentative steps into the real world of paid employment. As Ms Brown has found out the hard way, times have changed.
When your 5 year old daughter can hack your iPad password and spend £50 on in-app purchases (said with the bitterness of personal experience), you quickly learn an expensive lesson – that Generation Z is going to teach Generation X, Y (and the more grey-haired amongst us) a thing or two when it comes to the brave new world of social media.
The advance guard of Generation Z will soon be coming to a workplace near you, largely leaving behind the blissfully innocent world of hoodies, skateboards, underage drinking and recreational drugs. It will also be the first time that some of them have used social media for anything other than flirting, bullying, showing off and being abusive to friends and foes alike.
Generation Z has grown up in world of happy-slapping, cyber-bullying, trolling, tagging and the uploading of videos and photographs of victims caught in highly inappropriate (and sometimes criminal) acts. And to think that all we had to worry about at their age was getting your head flushed down the loo at school.
Is Generation Z any worse by nature than its predecessors? Probably not. However, with the advent of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, Instagram and the like, Generation Z is the first generation to have recorded the full details of its misspent youth on the internet. Its Social Media footprint consists of all those ill-considered jokes, comments and photographs that it would never dream of sharing with its parents but for some reason have no hesitation in sharing with the public at large in hyperspace.
In the words of Ann Barnes: “I was not recruiting an angel…I was recruiting a young person, warts and all. I think it would have been absolutely impossible to have found a young person who had not made a silly, foolish or even perhaps a deeply offensive comment during their short lifetime…I’m sure everyone has said or written something they regret – I certainly have. Unfortunately, today we live in an internet world where many people air their views in the public domain.”
And therein lies the problem for Generation Z. Their online world of banter with their circle of friends is not as private as they would like to think – not even remotely as private. Any inappropriate comments or photographs are potentially stored for eternity as a sort of electronic landmine for that individual and his future employers. It may be far harder to defend a race discrimination claim if the claimant can show an Employment Tribunal that the alleged perpetrator had a Twitter feed in his teenage years that would have made Bernard Manning blush. Factually irrelevant? Very probably. Material from which adverse inferences can be drawn? Almost certainly.
It begs the question of what lengths can (and should) a prospective employer go to in vetting their new recruits. Barnes confirmed that the vetting of Brown had followed normal police procedures but had not covered the teenager’s social media contributions as Kent Police’s vetting procedures “did not normally involve scrutiny of social networks for that grade of post”. Barnes also added that “nobody normally looks through anybody’s Twitter feed – perhaps that’s a lesson for the future. We are living in a different world now.”
We are indeed, and the need for increased due diligence for high profile roles is becoming ever more apparent. However, a word of warning – there are a wealth of potential discrimination risks lying in wait for any employer which gets too click-happy when vetting job applicants’ social media presences, especially if certain groups come in for particular targeting and weeding out.
So employers should tread carefully – the very act of social media profiling could land you in just as much trouble as the recruitment of a young candidate with a questionable Twitter feed.