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As the Thanksgiving holiday was winding down, a medical center in Salem found itself in the middle of a frothing social media mess. A nurse named Ashley Grames posted a video on TikTok that went viral in which she mock-confessed to ignoring coronavirus health guidelines.
The video, which Grames has since taken down, though it remains available on other feeds, is less than 15 seconds long. And if you’re not familiar with TikTok tropes, the video will seem very weird. The nurse is wearing scrubs and seemingly at a medical facility. She lip-syncs to a short audio clip from “The Grinch” and mocks her co-workers’ outrage at her decision to flout the state mask mandate outside of work.
The nurse’s antics drew some unflattering attention to her employer, Salem Health, which suspended her pending an investigation. But it highlighted the ease with which employees can pull out a phone on the sly and share a little clip before the boss is any the wiser. Popular examples include a Domino’s Pizza cook, an Amazon warehouse worker and Starbucks baristas. Their employers thus serve as unwitting backdrops, with the logos, uniforms and workplaces on full display.
As a law professor who studies workplace practices and policies, I find the mass of workplace TikTok videos somewhat surprising. That’s because even the most innocuous videos likely violate standard corporate social media policies, which tend to require a strict separation between the corporate brand and one’s personal life. Workers are generally not allowed speak on behalf of the company or use the company brand or facilities without permission. These policies also warn against embarrassing the company or mocking customers.
It’s pretty much impossible to dance with your uniform on in the back room without violating those rules, so why aren’t companies cracking down more?
TikTok teems with uniforms
TikTok, the preferred social media platform of the Gen Z set, is not really about connecting with friends. It’s more about recording the trending dance or fluffy topic of the moment and hoping the algorithm will spread your post to its billions of users.
Since much of TikTok is wordless and anodyne, TikTok seems the perfect corporate antidote to more pointed and politicized commentary on Twitter or Facebook.
And for the most part, it is. In 30-second bites, workers conjure up a mini-fantasy world of a job free of supervisors. A man twirls and glides in a glum potato warehouse. An Amazon worker packs boxes with Olympic speed and precision. Hospital workers in protective gear groove with balloons bulging out of their scrubs.
And of course, there are cops – so many dancing cops. Police officers in full uniform, usually standing on the road or next to their patrol car, following prescribed dance moves to snippets of R&B or hip-hop.
Why do cops love TikTok? Why does TikTok love cops? Their dancing is merely OK. But the uniform pops on the camera and the videos have a subversive quality, like they probably aren’t allowed to do any of this, but they’re doing it anyway. The man thumbing his nose at the man.
It’s free promotion for the employer, as recruiting and marketing companies have pointed out. Even before the COVID-19 era, these types of jobs could be difficult, dangerous, boring or low-paid. Videos that present an alternate narrative, from the workers’ perspectives – showing them looking cool or being silly – can’t really be replicated in formal marketing.
The honeymoon is over
On the other hand, TikTok may just be following the same trajectory of social media predecessors like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It all seems like fun and games until the scandals mount.
Beyond the Trump administration’s attempt to ban the app, companies have also pounced on the faintest whiff of embarrassment. Before there was Ashley Grames, there was Tony Piloseno, a popular TikTok paint mixer fired over the summer, apparently for posting a video in which he mixed blueberries with paint.
And there have been less high-profile scandals in recent months: a Chik-Fil-A worker fired over a video advising viewers to save money by ordering a drink with two extra pumps of mango syrup; a police officer suspended over a homophobic video about “magic” Crocs; and a Domino’s worker fired for posting videos of himself spinning a pizza slicer in the air.
As sociologists Steven Maynard-Moody and Michael Musheno observe in their book “Cops, Teachers, Counselors,” front-line workers are mired in rules and procedures. The inevitable response to scandal, they argue, is just to impose more rules.
But much of the appeal of TikTok resides in its patina of transgression. Dunkin’s official TikTok squad is as humdrum as any other corporate social media account. Reaping the viral rewards of TikTok may ultimately require companies to accept a little risk, and at least pretend they don’t approve.
—By Elizabeth C. Tippett, School of Law