July 21, 2017

Responding to Social Media Firestorms

Recently we told you about Kate Hannah who claimed on Facebook she had been dismissed for not wearing a bra at work. Of course this was completely refuted by her employer, but the hare was running.

Our previous coverage concentrated on the impact dress and appearance codes (or the lack of them) can have. This time we’re looking at the fallout such incidents bring, particularly in an era of instant, global, social networking.

It’s doubtful the Bird and Beer (Ms Hannah’s place of employment) envisaged the media tsunami that would ensue. Her furious Facebook rant was picked up by print publications and social media – both mainstream and niche.

And not just in UK media like the Daily Mail, Sun, Daily Star, Metro, Independent and other. It was also reported in Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria and a host of other countries.

No doubt all these eminent publications published their stories in defence of equality and diversity. Surely none would have reprinted the original Facebook rant – and accompanying pictures – just for readers’ titillation?

The social media reaction after the story went viral

And it didn’t stop there. The Bird and Beer’s own Facebook account went into meltdown for a few days. Post after post took swipes one way or the other, some in unnecessarily offensive terms. And all without, of course, the benefit of anything other than Ms Hannah’s original post by way of evidence.

Shock waves travelled wider.

Trip Advisor, arguably the world’s largest review portal, featured “Chiara from Lima.” In her first ever post (presumably following a hastily arranged flight from Peru to Beverley, Yorkshire) she advises potential customers:

…this is a sexist bar – I don’t recommend it for women especially if you don’t wear bras… because they are going to treat you like garbage.

That’s another thing about social media; things get published instantly with little effort to verify authenticity. But the damage is done and difficult to retract.

Looking from Ms Hannah’s situation to examine other problems social media brings

Indiscretions at work are nothing new, but the ability for details to spread globally like wildfire is. One of the first cases I handled, many moons ago, concerned a young man who gave a female colleague what he called “a playful spanking” at the office Christmas party, resulting in bruising to the female colleague.

The matter was contained to a disciplinary hearing, proceedings were kept confidential, and damage to the organisation was minimal and soon forgotten. It didn’t even make the local news.

Now compare and contrast. Last Christmas two colleagues at an informal DVLA Christmas celebration in Swansea apparently sneaked off for some amorous activity in the toilets.

Unfortunately, their departure was observed and another colleague followed them, filmed their antics and uploaded the footage to WhatsApp.

His unthinking intention was probably no more than a laugh at their expense. Unfortunately it went viral.

Despite the incident allegedly taking place in a pub toilet during an unofficial Christmas Eve bash, it was the DVLA that got smeared. Media articles prominently referred to DVLA, featured their signage and images of their Swansea HQ.

Here at Moorepay we frequently advise on social networking indiscretions, and we’re not easily shocked! Normally culpability should remain solely with the employees involved, but all too often the employer finds themselves in the fallout zone.

So what are the messages from such situations?

Don’t react on the spot. Deal with infringements sensitively and – as we would advise with any disciplinary, grievance or similar matter – investigate carefully, maintain confidentiality throughout, act consistently and follow a proper process.

Consider the wisdom of a public response.

DVLA stated that this was a private matter affecting two individuals and not a matter requiring their action. However much they were seething at the impact, it was probably wise counsel to stay silent.

Similarly, the Bird and Beer’s position was to refute there had been any dismissal and reiterate their duty of care to protect employees from discrimination or sexual harassment.

In both instances it was heads down, keep calm and carry on.

Only where the impact directly impugns the operation, integrity or good standing of the organisation may action be necessary. Moorepay’s examples of gross misconduct inevitably include one of “action that potentially brings the organisation into serious disrepute”.

And sometimes that’s exactly what it is.

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About the author

Mike Fitzsimmons

Mike is a Senior HR Consultant within the Moorepay Policy Team. He is responsible for the developing of employment documentation and is an Employment law advisor. With over 30 years of senior management and HR experience, Mike has managed teams of between 30 and 100 employees and is familiar with all the issues that employing people brings. He has also served as a non-executive director on the Boards of several social enterprises and undertook a five year tour of duty as Executive Chair of a £30+ million annual turnover Government agency.