When social media posts about employees grab attention for the wrong reasons, how the controversy is handled in both the office and court of public opinion will impact reputations. How HR approaches the situation can depend on whether the employee is a company leader or front-line worker, what the employee really intended to say, and whether safety is threatened.
Recently, an Apple executive was recorded by a non-Apple employee—a TikTok influencer—during a car show. He recited a crude and derogatory line about women spoken by Dudley Moore during the 1980s movie "Arthur."
When that TikTok video was discovered, the executive, a leader in Apple's sales department for 22 years, was fired almost immediately.
"It was 22 years dissolved in about 25 seconds," the executive told The Wall Street Journal. "It utterly shocked me. My whole life has been Apple. I tried to be the most loyal person."
What the executive said was awful, but was his firing justified? Such outcomes reinforce not only how important it is to set and enforce social media policies, but also how employers must be prepared to face blowback for their decisions.
Stacey Berk, founder and managing consultant of Expand HR Consulting in Rockville, Md., said that, as with all employee relations matters, "the organization should consider the specific situation against related company policies, laws/regulations, the parties involved and their influence over others internally and externally, and how similar challenges were managed."
She said a deeper investigation may be called for, depending on the severity.
Also keep in mind that violations of a company's social media policy may intersect with other policies such as the organization's guidelines for ethics, inclusivity, discrimination and harassment prevention, data, confidentiality, or intellectual property, she said.
What Was Said vs. What Was Intended
Before firing someone for social media missteps, said Christy Pruitt-Haynes, global head of talent management and performance at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York City, companies should consider the employee's tenure with the company and what was said versus what was intended. For example, the Apple executive said he saw no harm in speaking to a non-Apple employee while away from work.
"For many years, people have hidden behind the assumed anonymity of social media and used it as a way to say things they would typically never say to someone's face," Pruitt-Haynes said. "Over the past few years, we have transitioned to a reality where the assumption of anonymity is gone and many social media posts, especially those that are problematic, are viewed by a worldwide audience, and if the poster isn't obvious, people go to great lengths to reveal their identity. That has created a new set of issues for companies to deal with."
Jill Lashay, a shareholder in Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's Labor & Employment section, cautioned employers to think before firing. "Termination from employment is devastating for many who are faced with that experience. As such, it should not be the knee-jerk reaction of any company if an employee has a social media misstep," she said. "Although tenure with the company should be taken into account, the focus should be on the professional reputation of the employee during his/her tenure, not simply the length of service."
[SHRM members-only sample policy: Social Media Policy]
When Safety Is Involved
Posts directed at other employees deserve scrutiny. Pruitt-Haynes said even posts that do not explicitly threaten someone's physical safety could prove dangerous to the psychological safety that all employees need to feel to produce their best work, collaborate and innovate.
"In those cases, the organization needs to treat the offense with the same level of respect that it would a physical threat," she said. "The U.S. surgeon general reported that psychological safety is one of the responsibilities and priorities of companies in the United States."
Oftentimes, the problem with social media posts is that they can incite violence, speak negatively about someone or otherwise represent the organization in a bad light, she said.
When that is the case and the post goes against the moral or cultural norms of a company, dismissal is often the result. Company policies should address this.
"There are degrees to problematic statements or posts," Pruitt-Haynes said. "Saying, 'I don't like XYZ company' is bad but not overly harmful. Saying, 'I don't like XYZ company, so I am going to blow it up' is very different. An equally problematic statement would be divulging private company information or talking about clients or customers publicly."
Different Considerations for the Boss
Social media posts can go viral no matter who posts them, but the CEO of a company should be held to a higher standard than the receptionist, according to Pruitt-Haynes.
"Regardless of a person's position, if they post something egregious enough, termination should be considered, but that threshold should be lower for executives," she said. "They set the tone for what is and isn't allowed and expected, so the common saying 'To whom much is given, much is required' comes to mind."
Berk explained that organizations should take into consideration the severity of the infraction, the scope of the employee's job and other specific considerations involved when addressing discipline.
The CEO and public relations department may need to be consulted with as part of the decision. If the employee is retained, the organization should counsel the employee and provide a written warning in accordance with the organization's disciplinary process.
"If appropriate, as part of the disciplinary measures, retain a formal media trainer and coach to help the employee improve their communications skills, stay on message, develop key sound bites and make better decisions on behalf of the organization," Berk said. "This includes how to use different media outlets, including social media."
Outside employment counsel and an external crisis PR firm should be consulted with throughout the process, Berk said.
Addressing Public Outcry
Beware of knee-jerk reactions to viral posts. If company leaders aren't careful, they can overreact and jump to a decision based on the volume of the virtual pleas from the public (who may or may not have all the information about the situation) instead of the plain facts. However, they do need to explain how they handled the situation, Pruitt-Haynes said.
"For example, if a company remains silent, the public often assumes some level of guilt or complacency. Instead, the company should respond with what happened, how they responded or investigated, and reaffirm their values and mission."
She said one great example was Starbucks' reaction to two Black customers not being allowed to use the bathroom in one of its locations and then having the police called on them.
"They discussed the investigation, talked about new policies and mentioned the training they would give all associates," she said. "That shifted the narrative away from the team member who denied bathroom use and on to what the company was doing to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future."
When Damage Control Is Appropriate
Lashay said that if a company decides to retain an employee who posts something objectionable on social media, it should immediately engage in damage control by coordinating legal counsel, human resources, executive leadership and, sometimes, the company's marketing department or an outside reputation management company. That team can develop internal communications to tell employees how they are handling the situation, including the employees who work for or alongside the person who made the controversial post.
"It should not be necessary for the employee at issue to issue a direct apology to his/her subordinates or colleagues," Lashay said. "However, if the culture of the company supports such personal communication and the employee engaged in the misconduct is willing to make such a contrition, it may be helpful in mending any relationships damaged by the post."
Pruitt-Haynes said the flip side is when an employer chooses not to but likely should have dismissed an employee for something that person posted.
"In the age of social media often controlling so much of the narrative, a company has to expect backlash," she said.
"In that case, being prepared with a statement that explains the decision, while still being honest, is best. A clear, consistent message that informs people that you took the matter seriously but chose a different approach won't shield the company from public scrutiny, but it may demonstrate that the company is committed to its culture or climate. That company may lose some customers, but it will likely appeal to others."
Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.