What do you do when employees disparage the company on social media?

I was asked by Matt Wilson of Ragan PR Daily to comment on the American Airlines trouble with a presumably now former flight attendant who mocked the company and senior executives in YouTube videos he clearly meant to go viral.

The American Airlines and Starbucks stories reminded me of a local one that I was going to comment on a couple of months ago. My own Congressman, Rick Larsen from Washington State fired three young staffers after they tweeted some ridiculous things including calling their boss and idiot. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/reliable-source/post/rep-rick-larsen-fires-three-staffers-over-crass-tweets/2011/12/08/gIQAIM6DgO_blog.html
Clearly this is a new risk for organizations including government agencies, non-profits and corporations. It’s not new that employees complain about their jobs, disparage their company or bosses, or use their complaints to entertain others. The risk is in the fact that these antics are now so easily spread through the internet and so easily picked up by the media. It is also true, as the Larsen staffers saw, that even though they tried to disguise who they were through using pseudonyms and non-work accounts, these things are not difficult to uncover, and virtually impossible to remove once they get beyond the original post.
But companies and organizations walk a rope here. To appear to be too rough on kids just having fun runs the risk of acting like “the man.” Yet, to allow the kind of disparaging, damaging “entertainment” as the former flight attendant engaged in is to send a signal that such activity will be tolerated, and that will further encourage those so inclined to this kind of activity.
One other element that adds to the problem. When you have a video that goes viral, as clearly the flight attendant from American intended, it can lead to wonderful new opportunities. For example, the guy who created the fake BP twitter account which drew far more followers than BP’s real Twitter account announced after his identity was revealed on national TV that he was going to go into the business of poking fun of global corporations. And Dave Carroll, one of the most well-known song writers of recent time due to his massive hit “United Breaks Guitars” is now a hot speaker and expert on customer service. http://socialmediatoday.com/paulsimon/441272/united-breaks-guitars-made-dave-carroll-customer-service-celebrity-video-interview
What this means is, employees like the flight attendant probably are not going to be too influenced by the fear of getting fired. In fact, the instant celebrity status of going viral means they have a whole new world of career opportunities. It seems quite clear that Mr. David has an entertainment career in mind.
Which leaves companies like American Airlines (and almost everyone else) in a difficult position. I believe it is essential that organizations of all kinds have clearly written social media policies which make termination a given for publicly embarrassing, disparaging or showing disrespect toward the organization, its leaders or any employee. I do believe that Mr. David should be terminated although a backlash on this is almost certain to be generated on the internet. American should simply communicate that showing respect for others, including employees and executives, is a core value of the company and those not able to share that value simply are suited for the company.
But the real lesson from this incident, like Starbucks and Rep. Larsen, is that these things are going to happen. Now is the time for every organization to think it through. First, what are its policies. Two, have they been clearly and repeatedly communicated. Three, how will they respond when a violation occurs and Four, how will they explain their actions to the world that builds trust and respect rather than loses it.

2 thoughts on “What do you do when employees disparage the company on social media?”

  1. It is unbelievable how helpful and yet how much backlash social media can cause. Recently I was talking with a small bagel shop owner who had some very strong opinions on social media. He refused to use any form of social media based on problems it had caused him in the past. He felt that it could do just as much bad a good and it was just not worth it. That being said, there are times with social media that avoiding it doesn’t mean you or your company will not be talked about like in the case of American Airlines. It is something we don’t really think about when joining social media sites and monitoring them ourselves, but anyone can post about anything or anyone they want to online and you have no way of knowing unless it goes viral or somehow comes back to you.
    I do not understand why a flight attendant employee of any company would disparage the company on social media. They have to fully understand that under the circumstances the company will find out and they will lose their jobs. People do not seem to think about the effects social media can have and are not nearly as careful as they should be.

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