Disgruntled employees and company reputation
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How companies can protect themselves from disgruntled employees
Your disgruntled employees are the people who are most likely to go online to spread hate and gossip against your company, especially if they left your company on bad terms or they just want to cause trouble. Disgruntled employees could cause significant harm to the reputation of your company. The reason to be concerned about any online campaigns orchestrated by a disgruntled employee could be due to fears that they will disclose private information or that they have enough information about your company to know how to cause substantial harm.
Disgruntled employees are responsible for much of the defamatory and unauthorised dissemination of information about a company and its practices. Obviously, employees should not be exposed to untoward company practices or asked to participate in them. This way of thinking should be embedded in the company’s culture where management is operating in accordance with agreeable declared values rather than in an opportunistic way.
Employees are often aware of what happens behind closed doors and if they find that management isn't adhering to the values they preach, they are likely to become disgruntled and report those issues to the public once they leave their employment. The handling of a situation of redundancy, which might happen from time to time, is significantly important to the relationships between the company and the employee post termination. An articulate and intelligent employee could cause significant reputational damage to the company following termination of their employment and it would be a mistake to allow those employees leave the company angry or disgruntled.
Former employees who turn to the internet to air their dissatisfaction about the practices of their former company do so because they feel bitterness and outrage, not necessarily about the economic decision that led to their redundancy, but rather due to the handling of their redundancy by the company and the manner in which the unfortunate news was communicated to them. It is the lack of transparency and the absence of effective communication that results in many cases of internet reputation damage. Unfortunately, sometimes an ex-employee, particularly a disgruntled one, may say less than complimentary things about your business. So, what can you do? This is a job that often falls to HR – so it’s important to understand your options, so that you can make an informed decision about just how far to take matters.
Employees’ employments contract should always include a clause that prevents the employee from bringing the company into disrepute. This, together with a confidentiality clause, should help avoid a situation where a former employee goes online to defame the company. Even when it comes to matters which are not defamatory, but rather references to company’s practices, a confidentiality clause in employment contracts should normally help to reduce the likelihood of disclosure of the company’s practices being made online.
Whilst a former employee may still be bound by a confidentiality clause, public policy and public interest may override the duty of confidentiality. To avoid employees posting negative comments about the company post termination of their employment under the guise of whistleblower protection, you should ensure that the company has an appropriate whistleblowing policy in place which facilitates a clear process for the employee or the former employee to air their concerns without worrying about repercussions.
The policy here will set out the process for reporting genuine concerns and how they are going to be dealt with. Unless the former employee posts online about significant breaches of the law, it will be difficult for them to justify why they chose to post online about matters of such significance when they could have simply followed the company’s whistleblowing policy.
Often, the former employees post online about what they consider to be ethical or legal breaches by their former employer. When this happens they don’t usually explain the full picture, which means their online posts might be defamatory because the posts create a false or a misleading picture of the situation. Half the truth is often worst than a lie and a half, particularly when it comes to company’s reputation and online posts. Employment contacts, or redundancy agreements (compromise agreements) should always contain a clause that restrict an employee or former employee from discussing the company, its business or its affairs with third parties post termination of employment, this, together with a non-disclosure agreement which employees sign when they commence employment with you, should help to reduce the possibility that a former employee will post negative information about your company on the internet.
If you effectively communicate to employees important changes to the company’s structure, such as redundancy or the closing of a department this may help to reduce the likelihood of former employees turning to the internet to post negative content, either in the form of reviews or articles by way of example about your company. You should try to encourage face-to-face conversations with individual employees. This should help to reduce tension and it gives employees a feeling that you understand their feelings about the proposed changes and that you are not trying to avoid them.
Communicate any changes that are taking place clearly, and carry out a real and transparent conversation. This does not mean you have to follow every employee’s advice, but it might result in some good ideas being thrown into the conversation, particularly in a large organisation where their experience might be unknown.
When speaking to employees, remind them that the information given to them is confidential and that you have decided to share it with them in order to allow an open and constructive discussion. Create an agenda for the meeting and keep it constructive. Listen to the employees’ concerns. Try to address any perception of unfairness or prejudice. Provide an internal forum for discussion and for venting anger and frustration. Give your employees the specifics about what is happening to the company and always be transparent and honest.
Avoid addressing delicate issues in an external email or press release before conferring with the employees. Such practices may create an environment of fear, distrust, and resentment. These are exactly the ingredients that drive individuals to air their feelings online. Deliver the news to your employees as quickly as possible after management has decided on a cause of action.
Don't allow rumours to spread, as they create fear and uncertainty. Articulate clearly the course of action which is to be taken by both company management and by the employees, and the timetable for its implementation. Action counters fear and defeats uncertainty and frustration. Provide your employees with an ongoing forum for discussion. Do a lot of listening. Consider using the company’s internal blog to allow employees to exchange comments and suggestions and have access to the highest possible management level.
You can create this access through a blog, podcasts, or live video chats. Never treat employees as if they are no longer important to you just because they are likely to be made redundant soon. Some will say nothing until the day they part with the company, but soon after, they will air their views in their own personal blogs and in other public internet forums.
An common way for former employees to defame their employer is by posting on employers review websites such as Glass Door. GlassDoor.com is a website which is based in San Francisco and which encourages employees and former employees to post their views about the companies they work for. Whilst the website promises anonymity to employees who use it to post about their experiences, the anonymity often only applies to posters from the US.
UK posters on Glass Door website don’t enjoy the First Amendment right of freedom of speech which is a constitutional right that is granted to all Americans. The decisions of the courts in California, which often upheld Glass Door’s objection to disclose users’ data, have limited applicability in the US, which means the an employer from the UK might still be able to obtain user data about a defamatory post on Glass Door by a former employee. Employer should seek legal advice before signing in to the Glass Door website to make a report of a defamatory post because by signing in, they might be accepting the terms and conditions of Glass Door. Other websites where employees commonly post reviews about their former employer could often be dealt with in a similar way to Glass Door, at least for the purpose of obtaining disclosure about the identity of the former employee who posted defamatory comments on the website.
You should do what you can to avoid having to take a former employee who is bad-mouthing your company to court because the process could be painful for your both. Before taking a former employee to court over internet posts, you should consider the impact of legal action on your employees and on your customers. Your employees might want you to take this step because they might feel that what the former employee does is unfair and unjust. Defamatory online posts could be extremely disheartening to your team. It is often the team who asks the employer to take legal action in relation to defamatory internet posts.
At the same time, if your team feels disgruntled, they might view the company taking legal action for defamation as oppressive and unfair. This also applies to your customers. Your happy customers might want to see you defending the reputation of your company whilst other customers might view you taking legal action in relation to a former employee’s online post as oppressive. It all depends on the company culture and on the impact that the defamatory online review by the former employee has on your company’s reputation.
There are, of course, other consideration that you will need to take into account before commencing legal action against a former employee’s online posts, such as the likelihood of success of the legal action and whether your company is able to demonstrate serious financial harm as a result of the defamatory posts.