Social Media and Corporate Disobedience: The Third Way?

Editorial note: From time to time, we do guest posts here to mix up the content and the perspectives. This post was penned by Luc Glasbeek, a colleague of ours here at Oracle. Luc has maintained one of the most active internal blogs at Oracle for several years and is now taking a little break from that with a view to starting a new (external) blog some time over the next couple of months.

Luc’s areas of interest are social media, knowledge management, and creativity in business. I thought we’d give Luc a new forum here to get him started on his odyssey. Let him know your thoughts about this post, blogging at Oracle, etc. in the comments. Jake

In a bid to protect their image in the market place, most companies by now have a social media participation policy.

However, this isn’t preventing employees from expressing their (critical) personal views about their employer publicly on the internet. They just do so anonymously.

Photo by Ryan Leighty from Flickr used under Creative Commons

For instance, the salary comparison website Glassdoor.com has plenty of comments that employers wouldn’t want to be associated with. Still, the information is there, and it’s increasingly a force to be reckoned with.

Companies struggle to respond, and typically it’s going to be one of the following two scenarios:

  • Ignore the issue
    This is about disregarding the bad press, hoping it won’t turn sour by attracting too much attention.
  • Suppress the issue
    Here the company is taking legal action against the employee (if known), deny there’s any truth in the claims made, and summon the website to remove the content. This can be very costly and tends to generate loads of bad PR.

In either case there isn’t much to gain for the companies involved.

But let’s take a step back here, and consider the following: First of all, the employee may have a point. Second, social media is about conversations.

Rather than trying to curb ‘corporate disobedience’ through policies and legal action or ignoring it altogether, which in my view is getting less and less effective, my general recommendation would be to engage in a conversation on the topic whenever possible.

So I’d say, investigate any issues further internally and articulate a sensible (video?) response. It might be:

“One of our employees posted this video online. Even though we prefer our staff to raise any issues to their management directly, we looked into this and thought the employee had a point. So we’ve made a few changes. We thought you’d want to know as they directly benefit our customers. What we’ve changed is X, Y, and Z.”

Even if a video doesn’t explicitly mention a company name, businesses might want to proactively look into the matter:

“We’re not sure if the video was aimed at us. But it doesn’t matter. We loved it, and it’s inspired us to review our internal policies, trying to remove needless complexity. Keep them coming!”

If possible show the company’s creative side. Take the sting out of it. Turn it into a positive. Be proactive. Use critical employee messages on the internet as a catalyst for change. And sail close to the wind.

I would argue that this ‘third way’ would have the best outcome for all parties involved.

I’d be really interested to have your perspectives on the above…. What do you think?

Luc Glasbeek

9 comments

  1. Great post, I couldn’t agree more. Engaging in conversations about company issues (and acting on any insight gained) is the right thing to do. Smart companies welcome these conversations and meet issues head-on. The problem is most companies, especially larger ones, don’t have the right people in place to deal with these issues in a public forum.

  2. The problem with a proactive response is that you cannot predict the consequences. Let’s say that a company uses the second response to comment on something which might not pertain to them. Some lawyer (yes, I know, let’s always blame the lawyers) might use that as evidence in a legal action. Once this happens, some internal staff will then say “See, I told you so” and go back to options 1 and 2 (ignore or suppress). The only way that such a proactive approach would succeed is if it is communicated from the very top – say, a Steve Ballmer, a Larry Ellison, a Jean-Paul Herteman – and if the communication is done with conviction. Otherwise, someone on the organizational ladder will take it upon themselves to protect the company, and will clamp down on any such proactive communication.

    P.S. I look forward to your external blogging!

  3. I’m always looking for companies that do #3. Domino’s seems to have done that recently with the change in how they make pizzas…based on user feedback. Awesome.

    I think this is the ideal, of course. My reality has been far different (ask Jake). I still struggle with how and when (I don’t do so publicly any more) so for now, it’s just a firehouse. Not negative, I do have some diplomacy skills. But the overall view about me, from those once removed (i.e. management) tends to be that of a mal-content. Unless of course I approach them directly.

    I’m looking forward to your posts too. Tell Jake to publicize it so we can benefit from it. 🙂

  4. I am a big fan of companies, their management and employees being open and honest and what worries me here is that the employee feels ignored by his own company to have the need to post a viral video externally to get his point listened to. A company that doesn’t listen to it’s employees is a company that may not listen to it’s customers. Not sure it’s a company I would want to do business with.

    Having said that, the fact that one employee of a company can produce a viral video that can make other companies sit up and think and more importantly act, then that has to be a good thing.

    Before you know it, we may be paying people within our own organisation to criticise our own companies policies in an external environment just so we listen 😉

    Nice post Luc!

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments. I’m reminded of a phrase that’s been attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.”

    I have a lot of sympathy for the individual trying to change things for the better especially in large institutions. The internet can be a great ‘echo chamber’ to help get visibility for an idea, and companies have still some way to go in terms of coming to terms with it, to put it mildly. It’s a cliché, but the internet does give people a voice, and it was very different not long ago when I felt like cracking open a bottle of champagne if I had my Letter to the Editor published in a national newspaper.

    Going back to Gandhi’s quote, I think it’s important for ‘rebels with a cause’ to just keep going if the chosen path of going public is what they believe in. Eventually Option 3 would then be more likely. I’m a firm believer in freedom of speech even if it can affect an individual’s career (also see my next point).

    John, yes I take your point about the legal aspects. I discussed the topic with my girlfriend who is a lawyer (disclaimer: employment law is not her area of expertise) and if anything it sounds like a hairy situation if things end up in the court room. It’s a lose-lose situation.

    David, you used the word ‘listen’ a few times in your comment. It’s a great word… can you think of any companies that are good at listening (to their employees, customers, competitors, etc.)? (Apart from Domino’s as suggested by oraclenerd). Why is it that they have an intrinsic interest in listening?

    oraclenerd, i too probably have also pushed the boundaries a few times – with no regrets whatsoever i might add – but isn’t it better to challenge rather than blindly reinforcing them?

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments. I’m reminded of a phrase that’s been attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.”

    I have a lot of sympathy for the individual trying to change things for the better especially in large institutions. The internet can be a great ‘echo chamber’ to help get visibility for an idea, and companies have still some way to go in terms of coming to terms with it, to put it mildly. It’s a cliché, but the internet does give people a voice, and it was very different not long ago when I felt like cracking open a bottle of champagne if I had my Letter to the Editor published in a national newspaper.

    Going back to Gandhi’s quote, I think it’s important for ‘rebels with a cause’ to just keep going if the chosen path of going public is what they believe in. Eventually Option 3 would then be more likely. I’m a firm believer in freedom of speech even if it can affect an individual’s career (also see my next point).

    John, yes I take your point about the legal aspects. I discussed the topic with my girlfriend who is a lawyer (disclaimer: employment law is not her area of expertise) and if anything it sounds like a hairy situation if things end up in the court room. It’s a lose-lose situation.

    David, you used the word ‘listen’ a few times in your comment. It’s a great word… can you think of any companies that are good at listening (to their employees, customers, competitors, etc.)? (Apart from Domino’s as suggested by oraclenerd). Why is it that they have an intrinsic interest in listening?

    oraclenerd, i too probably have also pushed the boundaries a few times – with no regrets whatsoever i might add – but isn’t it better to challenge rather than blindly reinforcing them?

  7. Stand up, Speak up, and then Shut up!!
    Normally, advised to my clients when giving a presentation. But I think it could apply to employers too ~ don’t ignore the issue, speak up in an assertive and fair manner, and then let the conversation happen, without trying to curb peoples’ dissatisfaction or gripes.

    Great post, thank you!

  8. While it doesn’t really focus on employee posted material, the “Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment” is worth looking at, not least to determine whether something should be ignored or deserves a response.

    The other aspect is weighing up positive social media mentions against the negative. If someone Googles your company (or restaurant, book….), there’s a big difference between seeing just one negative comment and seeing ten positive plus one negative.. I’m not talking about professional spin, but everyday employees who happen to blog. If your company is working well, you should be able to link to all your employee’s blogs (including personal ones) without it reflecting badly on the company. If the thought of that is scaring an employer, they need to either look at the people they are employing or how they are treating them.

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