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25th Jul 2019
3 Min Read

Going postal. Social media and anti employee advocacy

People & Change

Twitter tirades teach us a lot about employee advocacy – especially when an employee explosively breaks ranks.

An angry employee getting hold of their company’s social media accounts is a nightmare every boss has lost sleep over. A public online resignation can not only have scathing repercussions for the agitated poster, but also for the business in question.

Take the risky resignation of the chief of staff for MP Jared O’Mara. Late on Tuesday 23 July, Gareth Arnold signed into his employers’ Twitter account and, with a barrage of vitriolic and revealing tweets, signed off from his post for good.

The thread skewered the Sheffield Hallam MP, labelling him ‘morally bankrupt’ and criticising his lack of support for constituents, before adding that O’Mara should “Consider this my resignation.”

This raises many questions about the blurred lines of online decency. Was Gareth performing a public whistleblowing service in pulling back the curtain on a serving member of parliament or was it a self-serving way to launch a new PR career? Was it banter or bullying?

What the law says

Ask anyone to reflect on their career and they can probably cite a time they would have felt tempted to follow Gareth’s example. But in such a public forum, it’s a dangerous game.

“From an employment law perspective, an employee who misuses a public communication channel to make accusations against their employer is putting their job at risk”, says David Sillitoe, Employment Lawyer at Robinson Ralph.

“This looks like gross misconduct on the face of it, subject to what policies the employer might have and an investigation. Yes, he seems to have resigned, although an employer in these circumstances might need to confirm that was indeed the employee’s intention.

“If he retracts his resignation, or resigns with notice, the employer could still take disciplinary action. Either way, I don’t fancy his chances of getting a good reference.”

The post ‘post’ landscape

Arnold, founder of the satirical Britain Furst Facebook group, is no stranger to notoriety. His social media following shot up overnight, growing as the press built on the story.

The old adage that all publicity is good publicity may hold fast for Arnold when it comes to securing his next comms role: he’s certainly proved he can get people talking. O’Mara however, is facing a big job to pick up the pieces of a shattered reputation.

Even as Arnold comes under scrutiny, with more detail coming to light about his background and motivations, for his employer, the damage has already been done.

What can leaders learn?

Like MPs, CEOs and business leaders operate in a highly visible position of power and influence within their organisation. Whether their accountability is to constituents or colleagues, leaders are uniquely vulnerable to the risk of reputational damage, now more than ever in the age of social media.

On the face of it, it looks like Arnold held more keys than most, with direct access to the brand channel. But we have seen this scenario of reputational damage at the hands of social media before, with brands such as HMV and Domino’s. They’re extreme examples, but they highlight why employee experience has the power to make or break a brand.

Organisations are increasingly asking colleagues to demonstrate their affinity online, boosting the brand’s reputation by promoting products or services and telling the world it’s a great place to work. Employers are recognising that people have far greater reach than brands. But it’s a double-edged sword.

That same concept of everyone being the public face of the business can land an organisation in hot water if employees decide to spill the beans on a bad experience. From searing reviews of the CEO on Glassdoor to revealing posts about how the product is really made, employers must be aware that what happens at work, doesn’t necessarily stay at work and that social media is always waiting to amplify that experience, good or bad.

"It’s better to be slapped in the face on an internal platform than stabbed in the back on an external one"

For many years, leaders were nervous about opening up forums on internal social media platforms like Yammer, intranets and, now, Workplace by Facebook. They wanted to avoid giving people the chance to post negative comments about the company and stir up negative sentiment against the organisation.

However, many thought leaders debunked this myth, saying ‘it’s better to be slapped in the face on an internal platform than stabbed in the back on an external one’.

Any leader has to be prepared to see, listen and respond to the views of their people. Even if their opinions are ungrounded in reality – that’s their perception and it needs addressing. Failing to do so can lead employees to vent to an external audience, as in Arnold’s case.

So, how to protect against this? It isn’t rocket science – it’s the fundamentals of good leadership. Transparency, authenticity, listening and responding, and fostering a good workplace culture.

Creating the kind of professional environment where employees are secure, engaged and valued goes a long way towards protecting the external reputation of an organisation by encouraging long-term employee advocacy, in person and online.

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