This article was published on April 3, 2012

Epic resignation letter is satire, sparks serious discussion about employee privacy and Facebook

Epic resignation letter is satire, sparks serious discussion about employee privacy and Facebook
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Reginald Scott Braithwaite is not a former Director of Software Development, despite the claim in his recently posted resignation letter.

In a stroke of genius, the developer wrote up a spectacular letter of resignation, inspired by the recent spate of incidents in which employers have been asking prospective employees for their Facebook login details. He describes it as a ‘prediction’:

At first glance, you might think the letter is real. Until you notice the little anomalies. Why is the Director of Software Development hiring a Fizz Buzz team? Would a Director of Software have a Posterous blog where he writes about the world of online dating in Canada or about his Reddit activity?

You get the picture.

The fictional letter highlights the very real problems that Facebook users are now facing. Kimberly Hester, a teacher’s aide can attest to that fact. She lost her job in Michigan last year after refusing to hand over her Facebook password.

It wasn’t until last month that Facebook, or the world for that matter, took notice of the issue, speaking out against the practice, and promising to engage policy makers to find a solution.

Just days later, the US House of Representatives shot down legislation that would restrict employers from requesting your Facebook password.

Braithwaite’s letter, which now has top billing on both Hacker News and Reddit highlights two very important things. One of them, he intentionally set out to highlight, and the other is possibly just an interesting by-product of the post.

Taking things at face value

Surprisingly, the Hacker News post makes few references to the fact that the letter is in fact entirely fictional. The first comment stating as much was made hours ago, but this is a fact that still continues to fly right over many readers heads. One Hacker News commenter points out one of the problems with Braithwaite’s approach, which some feel is too subtle:

I wish he had made this more clear in the actual original post. Unless I’m missing something, there was no indication of this being a parable. As it stands, I had already scanned his resume to mentally blacklist his most recent employer… burying the true nature [sic] the article deep in the HN comments isn’t really the best practice.

Braithwaite’s CV, available online for all to see, clearly lists his responsibilities, with no reference to the high ranking title. Should we blame Braithwaite because some readers were unable to notice the difference? I’d say, no.

Over on Reddit, however, one of the very first comments points out that the letter is fake.

As popular as Hacker News and Reddit are – they do represent a certain limited segment of online society. Over on a more mainstream Twitter, the post has been shared almost 2,000 times, up until now, and while it’s hard to say how many of them actually thought it was a real letter, we’re guessing, the number is relatively high.

How long might it have been before a mainstream media outlet caught wind of the story and ran it as the truth? For all we know, that may still happen, as the letter was posted just yesterday.

We’ve taken a look at this idea in the past – “when a story’s just too juicy not to retweet“. Braithwate’s post, while not a rumour, if you skim it a little too fast, or simply don’t do your homework, is no doubt being taken at face value as the truth.

While he makes an important point, should he have clarified the fact that it is nothing more than a work of fiction? Or should the blame be placed firmly on the shoulders of those who didn’t take the time to dig a little deeper?

At the risk of sounding somewhat melodramatic, this does hint at a far bigger problem that the Internet has brought along. We move too fast, expect things in bite-sized pieces of absolute Truth, with a capital T, and share them with the rest of our followers and friends as being exactly that.

The retweet and share buttons make it all too easy for a story to go viral, and in some cases that’s exactly what the content creator had in mind. You couldn’t take two virtual steps online without running into the Stop Kony 2012 campaign when it first launched.

It started with an outpouring of support, descended into an avalanche of criticism, and the Internet warred for about a week on the topic, before it was completely forgotten.

Kony was the perfect example of an online audience taking a very complex story at face value, minus the history, and some facts, and rallying behind a cause that might do more harm than good, depending on your perspective.

The shelf life of any story online appears to be no more than two weeks at the very most, and that’s in the case of a highly controversial story like that of Kony. In the case of a software developer’s resignation letter, it’s safe to assume that a few days is all that it will take for the story to fade away from the limelight, and our collective consciousness.

Was Braithwaite’s point lost in the method?

The real point that Braithwaite is trying to make is just as important – and that is – employers are opening up a pretty disturbing can of worms by insisting on accessing prospective employees Facebook accounts.

In the fictional letter, two examples are given:

“If you are surfing my Facebook, you could reasonably be expected to discover that I am a Lesbian. Since discrimination against me on this basis is illegal in Ontario, I am just preparing myself for the possibility that you might refuse to hire me and instead hire someone who is a heterosexual but less qualified in any way. Likewise, if you do hire me, I might need to have your employment contracts disclosed to ensure you aren’t paying me less than any male and/or heterosexual colleagues with equivalent responsibilities and experience.”

I got her out of the room as quickly as possible. The next few interviews were a blur, I was shaken. And then it happened again. This time, I found myself talking to a young man fresh out of University about a development position. After allowing me to surf his Facebook, he asked me how I felt about parenting. As a parent, it was easy to say I liked the idea. Then he dropped the bombshell.

His partner was expecting, and shortly after being hired he would be taking six months of parental leave as required by Ontario law. I told him that he should not have discussed this matter with me. “Oh normally I wouldn’t, but since you’re looking through my Facebook, you know that already. Now of course, you would never refuse to hire someone because they plan to exercise their legal right to parental leave, would you?”

Braithwaite’s point still makes a mark, regardless of whether or not you think the letter is fictional. It highlights everything that is wrong with having to hand over your Facebook login details to an employer.

In this particular situation, does it really matter that you think a Director of Software Development resigned over it? One popular opinion on Reddit is that, because the letter is  presented as fact it negates “its effective use in argument.” But at the same time, it certainly has people talking about the matter.

Update: Braithwaite has just shared a follow up post to his ‘resignation letter’, clarifying what we all already know – that it is fake.

He begins, “I was not clear that this was a work of speculative fiction, and I apologise for failing to include a disclaimer”. He goes on to share the clues he left in the original post:

“First, the Nixon letter. Nixon invaded people’s privacy and was forced to resign. In the story, I invaded people’s privacy and was forced to resign. This is not a noble story of a man standing up for what he believes in, it’s a story of a fellow who knows that he and not the COO ought to be judging new hires. Nevertheless, he complies with unreasonable demands and then resigns when they bite him personally. If I ever act this way, I won’t brag about it on my blog.

Second, I hoped that the nerds in the audience would get a good laugh out of hiring for the Fizz Buzz team. I’m not sure that even Enterprise Java Fizz Buzz running on multiple Websphere instances communicating via SOAP over MQ would need an entire team to build and maintain it.

Clues or no clues, I should have ended the post with a disclaimer. Mea Culpa!”

He also clarifies the point that he was trying to make regarding the controversial policy, by highlighting very real scenarios that employers may find themselves in.

He writes:

I hope that if anyone ever suggests a misguided policy to me, I will be able to listen to their concerns and work with them to establish a policy that is ethical and in the company’s true best interests, rather than “going along with it” and then resigning when I realize that my bonus is in jeopardy.

His post not only calls into question the policy itself, but also reminds us that managers have two choices when implementing this kind of policy, and resigning, while a decision that was applauded yesterday, is not the most honourable move. However, the message does appear to have been overtaken by the medium.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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