Adria Richards, formerly of SendGrid
Adria Richards, formerly of SendGrid (handout)

In a cautionary tale of how social media is redefining the workplace, a SendGrid employee's Twitter post during a tech conference last week set off the firestorm that spurred a Change.org petition, attracted a hacker attack, led to the firing of two people and generated international coverage.

Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for the Boulder-based company, set off the chain of events when she tweeted a photo of two guys who had offended her with jokes about "forking" and "dongles" — terms that are common among programmers but were used as double-entendres.

SendGrid subsequently terminated Richards' employment while San Francisco-based PlayHaven fired one of the men involved.

The brouhaha is expected to leave a lasting mark on how companies handle social media usage among their ranks, while also raising awareness about issues facing women in a male-dominated software programming world and how such conflicts should be reported.

"Companies and citizens alike will have to get used to living in a society where everything we say and do will be recorded and can be posted to everyone else through little more than a click," said Kai Larsen, an associate professor of information systems at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "The implications of this are profound, and given that very few of us are without sin or flaw, we'll have to learn to moderate ourselves."


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On March 17, while attending a session at the PyCon programming conference in Santa Clara, Calif., Richards said she felt harassed when she overheard sexist jokes from two attendees seated behind her. One mentioned "forking the repo," which in programming terms would mean taking a copy of software coding and modifying it. Another spoke about "big" dongles, which are small pieces of hardware that attach to computers and other devices.

The comments prompted Richards to tweet a photo of the guys and a request for help from conference organizers to her thousands of followers, which has since surged to more than 12,000.

A day later, she blogged about the situation, leading to a denial-of-service attack on her site. The tweets and blog post generated a flood of vitriolic messages in the Twittersphere directed at Richards. A Change.org petition urging SendGrid to fire her garnered more than 1,700 digital signatures.

SendGrid, which provides e-mail services for business clients and employs about 130, suffered a lengthy denial-of-service attack that started early Thursday. About three hours after it initially disclosed the service problems, the company took to Facebook and Twitter to announce that it terminated Richards, who had worked for the company for about a year.

In a follow-up blog post, SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin said Richards' "decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line."

He said a developer evangelist's role "is to build and strengthen" the company's developer community, and her actions at the conference "strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite."

Publicizing the termination of a nonexecutive is highly uncommon, said Edwin Zalewski, editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, which publishes workplace compliance materials.

"If an employee is terminated, there's not even a companywide announcement," Zalewski said. "Very often a person disappears and just doesn't show up for work the next day."

He said the company may have felt it was within its right to announce the firing because of the public nature of the matter, and SendGrid said as much in its statement.

Still, the move raised questions about whether her firing was prompted, at least in part, by the hacker attack. Franklin didn't respond to several requests for further comment beyond his blog post.

PlayHaven announced that it had fired an employee for "making inappropriate comments" and other factors, but didn't identify him.

For Richards, she may have little ground to stand on if she decides to fight the termination.

"You're sharing information about sexually harassing conduct with a lot of people who don't need to know about it in order for the situation to be appropriately addressed," Zalewski said. "Usually, when employers investigate sexual harassment claims, they will maintain confidentiality as much as possible."

In whistle-blower cases, when an employee takes the matter to the news media, they may no longer be protected by whistle-blower laws. In this case, Twitter could be viewed as the media, Zalewski said.

Richards, who lives in San Francisco, declined to comment Friday.

In her blog post, she said that women in technology need consistent reminders that "they are welcome, competent and valued in the industry."

"Everyone must take personal accountability and speak up when they hear something that isn't OK," she said.

Laura Stack, a workplace expert in Highlands Ranch, said the lesson for employees is to think before tweeting.

"This is a good reminder to everyone to control their trigger-happy finger," Stack said, "and think very carefully before hitting 'send,' especially in an emotionally charged situation."

Andy Vuong : 303-954-1209, avuong@denverpost.com or fb.com/byandyvuong