Labour suspended the whip from its recently elected MP Jared O’Mara on 25 October, citing a series of inappropriate remarks he has issued – primarily online.

O’Mara – who has only been in his Sheffield Hallam seat since defeating former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in June’s snap election – found himself under threat of suspension when political blogger Guido Fawkes quoted comments that the MP had posted about female audience members at an Arctic Monkeys concert.

The original comments appeared in a gig review that O’Mara had penned for an independent, online fanzine back in November 2004, when he was just 22. Since the Fawkes article emerged, O’Mara’s precarious position has been compounded, with the Telegraph revealing that senior Labour figures knew of his online comments at least one month prior to Fawkes bringing them to light.

It is also alleged that, in the years since he filed his review, O’Mara has made remarks of a misogynist and homophobic nature to individuals in person.

Clearly, for a party that is aiming to portray itself as a beacon of progress, the disclosure of the review – plus the subsequent allegations – have raised questions over O’Mara’s suitability as a representative. However, they also shine a light on how old online comments can come back to bite employees in the middle of success.

Indeed, a party spokesman noted that when O’Mara attended a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting on 23 October, he made “a very thorough-going apology and talked about the journey that he’d been on” since his youth.

To what extent should online comments, whether archived or recent, affect an individual’s career? And how must leaders approach conversations about these matters?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Anybody involved in the field of personal and leadership development would probably admit that someone experiences a necessary spell of discomfort before they achieve a degree of change. That’s not to go as far as to say ‘No pain, no gain,’ but it’s only natural that a sense of dissatisfaction with earlier behaviours becomes an impetus for improvement. It’s the uncomfortable recognition that those ways of being weren’t good enough that fuels the desire to behave better in the future.”

Cooper argues: “If any of us look back over our careers, there will be occasions, conversations and interactions that we will not be proud of – and that we certainly wouldn’t want to repeat, should similar circumstances arise in the future. So when we examine a young person who has made ill-advised, inappropriate remarks in the past, and then focus on who they are more than 10 years down the line, it is only reasonable to expect that we’d be considering a very different individual.

“Incidents where these comments have been more recent are certainly causes for far greater concern. But this is where it is very much incumbent upon an organisation such as the Labour Party to conduct appropriate due diligence, knowing that its MPs will be under so much scrutiny – particularly one who is still only in his 30s. He will have a social media track record and related online history, so it ought to be a priority to forensically examine such content, and then ask him to honestly reveal whether there is any material out there that he may now be ashamed of.”

Cooper adds: “Do I think that someone’s poor behaviour at the age of 22 means that they are written off forever – or that, if they’ve made subsequent misogynist or homophobic remarks, that they’ve completely lost the opportunity to change? Of course not. And this is where workplace diversity plays such a critical role. When we have personal relationships with people who have experienced those kinds of attitudes, that provides us with new and valuable insights into what it is like – so the scope for change begins to open up. I have always advocated the importance of organisations fostering such relationships so that the insights are more widely felt.

“Is there a degree of discomfort associated with that? Absolutely. But by ensuring that you have consistency in your behaviour, that painful process becomes enormously worthwhile. If, as a result of absorbing those insights, you are seen to behave with authenticity and integrity, then you will be more likely to inspire trust in others.”

For further thoughts on learning from mistakes, check out these resources from the Institute

Image of Jared O’Mara cropped from his official Parliamentary photograph, as found on the Wikimedia Commons