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Aug 15, 2017

It should be no secret to anyone that political activity and tensions are currently high in the US. And by now, everyone in HR has heard about the Top Dog restaurant employee who resigned as a result of his participation in the Charlottesville turmoil and the Google employee who was fired because of his controversial “diversity manifesto.”

Rather than just being news items, these cases should be treated as illustrative examples of the recent dramatic increase in political sensitivity in and around the corporate world. Executives and HR should treat them as a wake-up call and begin asking themselves a question that has become extremely pertinent. And that question is:

Does our firm have a formal plan of action covering what to do and how to limit the damage if one of our employees is publicly ridiculed as a result of what is known as Internet shaming?

If you’re not familiar with the term “Internet shaming” in the corporate world, it is when a firm’s employee is publicly exposed and ridiculed on the Internet for something they did that was controversial.

The need for a social controversy plan

The need for a policy and an action plan relating to political and social controversy increases every day for a variety of reasons. They include the combined impact of a higher number of public marches, the proliferation of mobile phone videos of these protests and the rise of Internet and social media websites (e.g. YesYoureRacist Twitter account) that actively use pictures/videos to shame individuals and their employer. Unfortunately, this shaming often results in the public making the connection (fairly or not) between an individual’s actions and the company that employs them. And that becomes a major corporate issue when that employee shaming leads to on-site protests, a loss of customers and damage to your firm’s product and employer brand image.

In the past, at least in the US, many firms have been operating under the legal principle that activities outside of work and that an employee’s personal beliefs are none of an employer’s business. However, when an employee’s actions or publicly exposed beliefs hurt the company or its employees, in my view a firm must at least consider revisiting its existing approach to employee activities.

Top 10 “Should I fire a controversial employee” action steps to consider

You should of course always consult with legal counsel before taking any action. But as part of your policy review process, here are 10 steps you should consider.

  1. Make a strong business case – You can’t expect executives to take action until they fully understand the dollar consequences of an action. So start by working with the CFO’s office to identify and then quantify in dollars all of the possible negative consequences that may result when an employee is publicly shamed. These consequences should include on-site protests, boycotts, employee turnover, employee brand/recruiting damage and damage to product sales and your product brand image.
  2. Consult with your corporate counsel – There are many complex legal issues involved so work closely with legal counsel. Also be aware that some states (e.g. California) specifically prohibit the firing of employees for lawful activities outside of work. And it’s also true that the laws and employee expectations are completely different in each country around the world. If you have a union, you should also consider involving them.
  3. Be aware that every available solution has negative consequences – Be aware from the start that, unfortunately, there are no perfect solutions to political controversies surrounding your employees. And that means that whatever solution you select will have many negative downsides. Prevention is the highest impact action, so begin by warning your employees to avoid controversy. Ignoring the problem is the solution with the highest negative consequences. However, firing or releasing controversial employees can also result in a backlash (e.g. marches are planned this weekend on Google headquarters and elsewhere protesting the firing of the employee who wrote the diversity manifesto).
  4. Educate your employees and applicants – Because your employees will likely be thinking about this issue already. It’s critical that you quickly let them know your expectations and provide them with illustrative examples of activities that they should avoid. You should also have a process for answering anonymous questions in this area. And if your policy extends to job applicants, you may want to add a social media check to your hiring process so that you don’t hire already controversial employees.
  5. Clearly define the activities that are prohibited/questionable – Perhaps the most difficult task is clearly defining what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Start by assuring employees that you are politically neutral and that you will look at damaging behaviors across the political spectrum. Whatever boundaries you set, it’s critical that you pretest them to ensure that they are clear to your employees. In most cases, it is easier to legally terminate an employee if violence or illegal activities are involved. It is also sometimes easier to terminate if the controversial employee is highly visible or if they are a manager.
  6. Specify the possible outcomes – If you are going to sanction or even fire employees for controversial beliefs or actions, you need to make those punishments crystal-clear. Some possible actions include: asking the employee to disavow, suspension, encouraging them to resign, or termination. In some cases, it may be wise to simply provide the employee with a severance package if they voluntarily leave and agree not to sue and if they stay out of the public limelight.
  7. Monitor what’s happening – As long as the political climate is highly charged, your social media employees could be asked to pass on any possible social media issues in this area. Internal employee forums and affinity groups could also be monitored. You might also encourage your employees to make HR aware when they spot potential issues.
  8. React quickly – No one that I have encountered has ever suggested that a delay is a good thing. So be able to react within a day or two if you want to minimize the damage to your firm.
  9. Reveal the actions that you take – The company’s image may continue to be damaged if you fail to make the public aware of the corporate actions that you took to resolve the controversy.
  10. Learn from each event – Finally, because this problem will be continually evolving, it’s important to learn from your errors and those made by other firms. And then, continually update your policies and processes to reflect the latest best practice approach.

Final thoughts

The free-speech article of the Constitution only protects citizens against government actions. So if you are a private employer, rather than the Constitution, you need to consider other elements including local employment laws and the best interests of your employees, customers and shareholders.

Because this is a highly complex and risky area, I expect many firms to do nothing. However, that can be a major mistake because in the near future you are likely to see many more protests that are videoed, an increase in Internet shaming and many more controversial tweets and Internet exchanges covering your employees and contractors. As a result, in my view, the time to at least begin the conversation on how to improve your reaction is today.

Author’s Note: If you found that this article stimulated your thinking and that it was actionable, please take a minute to follow or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn

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