The Ethics Coach on Handling Social Media Attacks
Q: I hired an employee who worked one day, called in sick the next, then asked for a leave of absence. Per our policy, the leave would have been granted had he provided medical documentation--but he never did. He stopped coming to work, and we had to fire him. Then he sent me an accusatory e-mail and said terrible, untrue things about me and my company on Twitter. How much should I tell my employees? I am uncomfortable sharing personal employee details but want to tell my side of the story.
A: To help offset internal blowback during a crisis (and because it's just good business), it's important for leaders to establish strong two-way communication with employees so that they understand company policies, get answers to their questions and see that their bosses are walking the talk. An ongoing exchange builds trust, so when a problem does crop up, you feel less pressure to have to tell your side of the story. If you don't have that type of communication in place, make it a priority to create it.
In this case, it's important that you speak up (in a meeting, if possible, or--if your staff isn't centrally located--by e-mail) to make it clear to employees that what they read on Twitter isn't true and that the former employee didn't provide the documentation required for a medical leave, so you were forced to fire him. Follow up by sending out a copy of the medical leave policy. Also, let staffers know that you will be happy to discuss any questions they may have about the policy, but, because you respect the privacy of employees (both current and former), you will not be able to answer questions about this specific incident.
You might also want to give your lawyer a shout.
"The entrepreneur is correct to be cautious of the former employee's privacy rights," says Damion Robinson, an attorney with West Hollywood, Calif.-based Van Vleck Turner & Zaller. However, by taking matters to Twitter, the employee did open some doors himself. While health issues are out of bounds, says Robinson's colleague Anthony Zaller, "if the employee posts about how badly an employer treated him, the employer has the right to publicly set the record straight with specific facts to rebut the allegations made."
The employer, he stresses, should limit such discussions to the facts and issues raised by the employee in the posts, and should never retaliate against employees for making complaints.
Q: I'm not comfortable asking for help on ethics issues. I worry that any question I ask--even when I'm trying to make things right--will reflect negatively on me or on my company. Although this column promises confidentiality, I'm concerned that anything that gets printed can easily be linked back to the source. How is my anonymity protected?
A: I'm glad you asked. This issue goes way beyond this column. The more you talk about ethical dilemmas, the more routine it becomes.
The potential for ethical problems is an ongoing vulnerability for every company. To be proactive, your team, partners and vendors need to know that you want people to talk to each other and to you if they have any concerns. Dealing with ethical issues can be uncomfortable--a big reason they're often ignored--because solutions aren't always obvious. There are gray areas.
Make things easier by trying to let go of your judgment of others or the perception that others are judging you when ethics issues come up. The best approach to finding a way through an ethical quandary involves looking at it and its impact from various perspectives, talking it through with others and evaluating it in the context of your company's values, as well as your own.
As for this column, its purpose is to offer entrepreneurs a sounding board for ethical issues. Confidentiality is essential. Questions selected for publication are edited to remove personal, company and city identification. If I ask other experts to comment, they see only the edited, anonymous question.
While an ethical problem may feel unique to the person facing it, the reality is that others have or will experience similar circumstances, so tracing a question back to its source would require supernatural sleuthing powers.