To prevent online comments from creating a public-relations nightmare, such as the one created by Arkansas school board member Clint McCance’s October 2010 Facebook postings with inflammatory comments about gays and suicide, some employers issue social media and computer usage rules. Tackling the ultimate source of online venom, however, might take a little emotional intelligence.
The online universe is a place where the best and the worst examples of human behavior collide, often in spectacular ways. Reactions to McCance’s comments, readily accessible via any online search engine, included calls for his immediate resignation, as well as a spate of retaliatory name-calling.
On Oct. 28, 2010, McCance issued an apology—and announced his intention to resign—during an episode of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” Although McCance avoided an “I’m sorry if I offended you” sort of apology, some were quick to question the authenticity of his remarks and his motives.
“This is the biggest non-apology … apology I’ve heard,” TV talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw told Anderson Cooper the next day. “He did not apologize for what he said. He didn’t apologize for the message that this gives to children, to kids, to parents out there. What he apologized for was saying that suicide was the only out and that he’s sorry ... that he said that.”
The gay community was similarly suspicious.
“Clint McCance's decision to resign from the school board is a step forward for the community he represents. We are hopeful the wounds that were inflicted will soon be healed,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group representing gay and transgender people. “What remains troubling is that Mr. McCance focused his regret on particular word choices, not the animus behind those words.”
“Words are very powerful; they are weapons,” said singer Sheryl Crow during an episode of NPR’s “Tell Me More” program that aired the day that McCance apologized. “They can also edify, and they can build us up.”
“I don't think there is any place or call for meanness,” Crow added. “If there's anything that I want to motivate people to do is to try to cling to the divinity that exists in all of us … when we defend somebody when everybody else is cutting that person down. When the best part of us steps out; that to me is what we need to get back to being.”
So What’s an Employer to Do?
Although McCance was an elected official, and thus subject to different expectations and controls than an employee, his experience reinforces the need for HR professionals to think about what they would do if such a situation occurred on their watch.
One way employers can prepare for such situations is to be sure that all employees, especially those in highly visible roles, know the organization’s expectations for online behavior. According to IBM’s “Social Computing Guidelines” employees are to respect their audience: “Don't use ethnic slurs, personal insults [or] obscenity, or engage in any conduct that would not be acceptable in IBM's workplace,” the guidelines state.
After a situation occurs, however, the employer’s job tends to take the form of damage control.
“If an opinion in conflict with corporate values enters the public domain and draws attention to [an employee’s] place of work, it becomes of keen interest to the employer,” said Brian McNaught, a diversity consultant and trainer based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. That is particularly true if it affects the company’s ability to attract and retain employees, optimize profits and create a workplace in which every employee feels safe and valued.
McNaught said employers faced with a McCance-like scenario would typically take several actions such as:
- Meeting with the employee to tell him that his public comments have impacted the ability of his colleagues to work effectively as a team.
- Explaining how his comments have impacted the organization and have led the company to consider what value he brings to the workplace.
- Shifting the individual’s responsibilities, leadership role and involvement with outside clients.
- Arranging for a program to help resolve any fallout between the individual and his colleagues.
- Issuing a public statement affirming the right of employees to hold personal opinions but making it clear that the opinions expressed did not represent the company’s values.
Though an employee in a situation like this couldn’t be required to apologize, according to McNaught, he would be encouraged to do so. However, McNaught noted that he would want to hear the apology before it was shared with employees to make sure that it would do more good than harm. “A poorly worded apology, or one that reaffirmed his belief in the sinfulness of homosexuality, would exacerbate the situation,” McNaught explained.
“If I was brought in for such a session with co-workers, I would ask members of the group to share with [the individual] how his words affected them personally,” he added. “My goal would not be to change [the individual’s] point of view but to allow him to take responsibility for the impact it had on others. Allowing others to express their feelings would allow the team to move forward.”
Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
“Having such strong negative reactions to homosexuality is one thing, but posting such hateful remarks on Facebook showed a complete lack of broader self-awareness,” said Kevin W. Grossman, principal of The Glowan Consulting Group, a California-based leadership consulting firm, of McCance’s postings. For example, he noted that McCance seemed to forget that he was on the school board and had children of his own, and that there is increasing incivility and bullying in schools.
“He may have a very high intellect,” Grossman added, “but his emotional intelligence is pretty darn low.”
“Having a higher emotional intelligence (EQ) means that you're self-aware of your emotional reactions to life events and you know how to manage them appropriately,” Grossman explained. “This also means you know how to self-check before you respond to anything, particularly when in any kind of leadership position.”
Those in leadership positions must go beyond self-awareness, Grossman explained, particularly when dealing with workplace conflict, to be aware of others’ emotional reactions and to manage employee interactions in an effective manner.
“Those with higher EQ have the ability to communicate and collaborate more effectively, regardless of their personal views,” Grossman said.
During an Oct. 28, 2010, webinar on emotional intelligence as a key leadership skill, Grossman explained that an individual’s IQ is the tip of the iceberg—10 percent of human behavior. The other 90 percent consists of emotions, he said. “Strong IQ and experience gets you into professional positions, but EQ spells the difference between those who excel and those who underachieve.”
“If there is ever a battle between thoughts and feelings, nine times out of 10, feelings will win,” said John R. Anderson, senior business consultant and principal at The Glowan Consulting Group and a co-presenter of the webinar.
Thoughts and feelings are related equally, he added, and emotional intelligence helps individuals make sure that feelings don’t drive inappropriate behaviors.
“Most CEOs get hired for high IQ and get fired for low EQ,” Anderson noted.
Emotional intelligence is a strong predictor of job performance, according to The Relation Between Emotional Intelligence and Job Performance: A Meta-Analysis, a study conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University that has been published online by the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
The study’s authors summarized all published research in the field of emotional intelligence and used the latest statistical analysis techniques to examine the accumulated data and to control for publication bias, according to an Oct. 25, 2010, announcement. The study explored the three prominent testing procedures of emotional intelligence and concluded that emotionally intelligent people make the best workers.
According to the Glowan model, emotional intelligence develops over time, beginning with an inward focus in which individuals learn:
- Self-awareness: The link between their emotions and what they think, do and say.
- Self-management: The ability to catch their emotions before they react and the ability to know how to plan for difficult situations.
Next, individuals move to the outward focus of the model, in which they learn:
- Social awareness: The ability to ask, listen and learn what other people are feeling and to see situations from other peoples’ perspectives.
- Relationship management: How to use emotions as a “change catalyst” to impact interactions with others in a positive way.
“People with high emotional intelligence reach out to others, build bridges and are the kind of people others want to work for,” Anderson said.
“The good news about assessing and developing emotional intelligence in any individual or organization is that EQ skills, like emotions themselves, can spread like wildfire,” Grossman said. “In fact, the more you interact with empathic people, the more empathic you can be.”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Juan Williams’ Diversity Lesson, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Oct. 27, 2010
Oops! What to Do When an Employee Says the Wrong Thing, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Feb. 9, 2010
How to Resolve a ‘He Said/He Said’ Dispute, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 30, 2009
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