As a young college student in 2011, Alexi McCammond’s tweets included racist and homophobic remarks. In 2019, while working as a reporter at Axios, she apologized for and deleted those earlier tweets. Now 27, those tweets resurfaced, forcing McCammond to resign from a prestigious job that she had not yet begun as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue.
The incident is a temporary crisis for the publication and a tough life lesson for McCammond. It should, however, be a teaching moment for everyone with a social media account and a management lesson for organizations.
At the time McCammond was offered the top job at the Condé Nast flagship teen magazine, its key leaders, including the famed Anna Wintour, knew of some of McCammond’s tweets and her subsequent apology. They nonetheless remained committed to the candidate they selected. That confidence left them unprepared for the ensuing outcry.
Just days after McCammond’s appointment was announced, 20 members of Teen Vogue’s staff sent a letter to Condé Nast protesting her hiring. As the controversy built, retailers Ulta Beauty and Burt’s Bees suspended their advertising in the publication. McCammond responded by reaching out directly to Teen Vogue’s staff, further apologizing and expressing her commitment to the development of a more inclusive magazine.
As the uproar grew, McCammond and Condé Nast finally announced that they were parting ways. This led to the inevitable outcry that “cancel culture” had once again taken down a talented professional forced to pay for a youthful mistake with her job.
The outrage on both sides has obscured the several lessons that should be learned from this story.
First, social media offers a constant temptation to appear spontaneous and clever, even as success in real life requires thoughtfulness and intention. Social media is your permanent record. What you say today you must live with tomorrow. Act accordingly.
Second, you are never so young that you get a pass for using racist and homophobic slurs. Nonchalantly expressed slurs reveal a casual ease with which the “other” is dehumanized. It may be an unconscious bias, but it is a bias nonetheless. People have a right to call you out on it later.
Third, employers have an obligation to ensure that those they select for positions of influence and power can withstand the scrutiny they will inevitably face in their new role. Condé Nast was tone-deaf in its assumption that McCammond’s past would not be an issue in a world still reeling from Black Lives Matter protests and an election year filled with racist and xenophobic commentary and hate crimes. In such circumstances, moving forward assuming no one would notice or care risked creating a toxic work environment and was doomed to fail.
Fourth, “cancel culture” has become the insult invoked when trying to avoid having to face responsibility for one’s behaviors. Forgiveness in response to a heartfelt apology is a grace we all deserve. But that does not erase the fact that actions have consequences. For this particular job, an apology could not be sufficient.
Teen Vogue purports to be a publication that helps teenagers build confidence, urges young people to be bold in the world, and helps them earn credibility as they begin to navigate the adult environment. McCammond was the age of Teen Vogue’s target audience when she blithely tweeted her own slurs. How could Condé Nast possibly think it would go without notice that its new editor in chief’s own actions at that age were anathema to the publication’s expressed values?
McCammond is not a victim in this story. She is simply living with the results of her actions. She is also a capable and talented journalist who is likely to have a long and successful career ahead of her.
Perhaps McCammond and Condé Nast, on their now separate journeys, can demonstrate their own lessons learned from this experience by working to reduce the toxicity and pain inflicted by the careless use of social media. That would certainly be journalism worth reading.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, speaks, trains, consults, and provides expert witness testimony on diversity, inclusion, and the creation of a respectful workplace culture. She is the author of The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, and You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams. Follow Lauren on Twitter: @LaurenRikleen