HR Misconduct Went Viral. Now What?

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By Genevieve Douglas

Employees who behave badly can cause embarrassment and negative press for their employer, and those consequences are heightened when the impropriety occurs in the human resources department.

Dash Delivery LLC in Seattle learned this lesson the hard way when an HR employee’s interaction with an applicant went viral. The HR employee disparaged a Vietnamese man’s English language proficiency, and when the exchange was shared widely on Twitter, the worker was swiftly terminated.

Employers face these kinds of problems every day, Susan Bassford Wilson, e-Law Practice Group chair for Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP in St. Louis, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 1. “This is happening from the C-suite down in many companies,” yet the public expects more of HR employees than other workers, she said.

The expectations are high because workplace behavior is HR’s area of expertise, and HR professionals are often familiar with federal statutes and guidelines that protect workers from harassment or discrimination, she said.

“We are in an era of consequences for your actions online,” and any employee who speaks or writes insensitively will cost employers good will and likely lose his or her job, Andrew Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 6. For HR departments it’s best to be preventive with bad behavior, Challenger said.

“In departments where there is a strong culture of treating job applicants as customers, for example, this would be less likely to happen,” he said.

Prevention starts with a thorough internal assessment to determine whether the employee behavior in question was an isolated incident or is indicative of a broader workplace culture problem, Larry Parnell, associate professor and director of the George Washington University Master’s in Strategic PR program, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 2. It would be important to ask recent hires whether they felt discriminated against or insulted, and HR should also review interactions among employees in the problem department, Parnell said.

Additionally, if there are guidelines, requirements, policies, or values that are in an employee manual, that should be re-issued as a reminder to employees, he added.

Don’t Wait for It to Happen to You

Examining the culture of the industry often can be a good starting point for HR.

Companies should consider monitoring whether competitors are experiencing similar problems, Parnell said. The question should be: “Is this an industry problem?”

For example, Hollywood production companies and news media organizations would have been smart to follow this line of thinking last year when Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, among others, were accused of sexual harassment. Silicon Valley start-ups have similarly experienced common problems and bad publicity with diversity and wages.

“Just because it’s not your company that’s in the news doesn’t mean you don’t have an obligation to make sure that what happened to Company A doesn’t happen to you,” Parnell said.

Social Media Can Be Friend and Foe

It’s not a unique situation in 2018 for companies to learn of issues in the workplace via social media, Bassford Wilson said. Sometimes workers report inappropriate social media postings by co-workers and sometimes the public at large outs the offensive behaviors.

Organizations should use social media to respond to problems they discover on social media, Bassford Wilson said. This can ensure that, for example, the people who saw the original offensive viral tweet see the response from the company as well, and it can go a long way in rectifying the negative brand attention, she said.

Allegations of harassment or discrimination, however, need to be addressed quickly, no matter how the company become aware of the issue, Bassford Wilson said.

An employer may want to invest in a designated employee to monitor what’s being said about the company on social media, because the time lost between a post going viral and the company learning of the issue is critical, Parnell said.

“Social media is a forum where reputations can be impacted,” he said, “and if you aren’t paying attention to it you are behind the 8-ball.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com

Copyright © 2018 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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