Almost as quickly as Roseanne Barr’s Twitter meltdown hit the headlines and racist rants by others gained infamy on social media, the perpetrators of those outbursts were fired.
Welcome to the 21st-century corporate world, where businesses must protect their brands by making swift employment decisions about off-duty conduct. No longer do executives feel they have the time to call meetings, investigate or explore alternatives to immediate termination.
Today, cultural debates can dictate corporate decisions, and if a company is not seen as acting at the same speed as the social media firestorm, then it can face permanent damage to its reputation and loss of business.
By quickly distancing itself from Barr – and dropping a show that was a ratings boon – ABC maintained public confidence and ensured the continued loyalty of advertisers and viewers.
In that case, and in other examples such as the recent infamous on-camera racist tirade by a B.C. woman at Denny’s restaurant in Lethbridge, Alberta, most would agree there was only one right decision, and it needed to be made without hesitation. However, immediate termination isn’t the answer in all cases.
One of the first Canadian cases of Twitter-triggered firing involved two Toronto firefighters who tweeted sexist comments. Their union grieved the terminations, and the arbitrations delivered different results.
For one firefighter, the arbitrator upheld the termination, as sexist tweets seemed to be a pattern with him and the tweets were harmful to a department trying to recruit women to a profession known for its lack of diversity.
The second firefighter fared better, with the arbitrator substituting his termination with a three-day suspension.
The arbitrator said that, among other reasons, the fire department hadn’t adequately publicized its social media policies despite knowing that many employees were using social media.
Taryn Mackie, an employment lawyer in the Vancouver office of Norton Rose Fulbright, said there are numerous ways companies can mitigate and manage risk, much of it through robust company policies and proactive education regarding those policies, which might include:
•Reminding employees that employment duties and company policies apply to online activity at work and outside of work. These include comments that might be detrimental to the employer, harassing or bullying in nature or in violation of human rights.
•Reminding employees that social media is not a secure or private form of communication.
•Setting appropriate boundaries on the use of social media during business hours. This could include blocking access to social media on company computers.
•Addressing representations: are the employees representing the company when online?
•Advising employees that social media activities might be monitored and reviewed.
•Notifying employees that they are responsible for their activities and might be held accountable for them.
•Outlining the consequences for breaching company policies on the use of social media.
•Obtaining a signed acknowledgment from employees, noting an understanding of and commitment to respect the policies.
Mackie said if an employee is suspected of posting something questionable on social media, basic principles of employment law still apply.
Employers have a duty to conduct a fair and objective investigation. If that investigation results in dismissal and the employee challenges it in a judicial setting, the onus is ultimately on the employer to prove the breach and avoid damages.
And then there’s the matter of public confidence.
In some particularly offensive cases, it is prudent for employers to take immediate action and make public statements to protect themselves from reputational damage, most of which will play out on the very platform that got someone fired in the first place. •
Renu Bakshi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior communications strategist who specializes in crisis audits, crisis management and media training.