How to respond when an employee goes rogue on social media

Written by Mark Rowland Wednesday 01 September 2021
Social media controversy can be extremely damaging to the reputation of a business. But addressing an employees’ controversial posts requires a careful approach
A thumb hovering over a smartphone screen with a folder of social media apps

It seems that a week can’t go by without some kind of controversy blowing up on Twitter. Some bad faith protestations ebb away as soon as they’ve arrived. Others are much more serious, and organisations can find themselves dragged under by the tide of Twitter opinion.

Take, for example, Savills, who in July found themselves having to deal with the criminal actions of an employee sharing racist abuse on social media. People wanted an immediate response from the organisation explaining what action they were going to take in response to this. The employee in question had not used a Savills-related account, nor mentioned Savills in any of their tweets; other Twitter users connected the account with his LinkedIn profile. The barrier between the personal and the professional was broken down in a few clicks.

Businesses cannot police their employees’ personal social media accounts, but there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, and managers need to be aware of what that line is, communicate that clearly to their teams, and know how to respond if the line is crossed.

Know where you stand

Some organisations do not make their social media policies and guidelines very clear, explains Advita Patel CMgr CCMI, director of CommsRebel and co-founder of Leader Like Me. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion and a specialist in how to deal with tricky brand reputation issues.

“Leaders need to be clear where they stand on topical issues, such as Black Lives Matter and Pride, sustainability and climate change,” she says. “They’re all emotive topics that most people have strong views on, so you need to have a company line in place and be clear on what that line is.”

This particularly pays off when a social media conduct issue arises. If your organisation is being tagged in a conversation around a controversial tweet from one of your employees, people will expect a swift response. A clear stance and a proper process will speed things up, reducing the risk of further outrage. For example, if you have decided on a zero-tolerance policy for certain behaviours, you pretty much have a statement ready to go if that behaviour is picked up online.

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Know what’s acceptable

The lines on what is acceptable and what is not can blur on social media. If an individual is using a personal account to express their support for someone with unpleasant or controversial views, for example, that’s not necessarily an issue that you can address. “You can’t technically stop somebody sharing their personal political views on social media if they stay within the law,” says Patel. “You can debate whether they align with the values of the organisation, but if they’re performing well and haven’t caused any issues within the organisation, it can be difficult to manage.”

People’s opinions become a management issue, however when it descends into harassment. That doesn’t necessarily mean debating people on social media; believe it or not, that can be done in a productive and respectful way. But when it devolves into name calling, harsh language and bombarding people with posts and comments, it’s a different story. It could also be a criminal matter, such as in the Savills case, where the individual was directing hate speech at individuals. In those cases, where a connection to the organisation is clear, there is a duty of care to the public to take action.

Know when to step in

It’s not possible to monitor every employee on all social media platforms, and if you target specific individuals, you could be accused of unfairly targeting them for their beliefs. Even if you’re aware of concerning beliefs, you should only take action if those beliefs start impacting on other staff members or the general public.

Your communications team will probably pick up rumblings of any potential issues going on outside of work. This information can be useful for shaping how you educate people about various issues. It can also help you identify any other factors that might be shaping that behaviour. Colleagues can also be quite insightful in determining the truth. It’s likely that if that individual has a habit of spouting hateful or harassing material online, they will have picked up on it.

“Most people who are sharing hate have some kind of underlying issue themselves,” says Patel. “The conversation you need to have with that individual may be more nuanced than you think.”

Where it is clear that an employee has gone too far, it’s important to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident before you take any decisive action. It may seem open and shut and it’s tempting to cave in to the cries of angry social media users, but you should follow a proper process. It is possible, for example, that an account has been hacked, or that person is a victim of targeted harassment themselves, in the form of online impersonation. “You have to be fair and look into these things properly. It can’t be a trial by Twitter,” says Patel.

Launching an investigation

If a hate crime has been committed, then for the safety of your other staff, suspension is the best option, pending further investigation, explains Patel. “The situation can go awry if you let them walk back into the workplace while the investigation is ongoing. These things can take a long time, so you need to take action and communicate effectively to your colleagues and your customers, especially if it’s gone public.”

Paul Kelly, head of employment law at Blacks Solicitors, says that employers need to take into account several factors when investigating an act of misconduct on social media:

  • How serious are the comments?
  • Has the employee identified themselves as being employed by the employer?
  • Who has seen the posts?
  • Is there any evidence of actual or potential damage to the employer’s reputation?

Jumping to conclusions too quickly and dismissing staff without following an investigatory or disciplinary process is a major pitfall for organisations, he says. “Employers need to show reputational damage has actually occurred or is reasonably likely, as failure to do so may render any subsequent dismissal unfair.”

The fine legal line that managers need to tread will be covered in a subsequent article, but a clear policy, proactive approach to communication and a thorough investigation process is half the battle.

Advita Patel joins Ann Francke OBE for the Better Management Briefing on Friday 3rd September to discuss communication and inclusive culture. Watch their conversation here.

More resources for your CPD: Improve your handling of difficult conversations with CMI’s tailored resources on communicating under pressure – including plenty more articles, activities and short e-learning courses. Complete three tasks and receive a digital certificate. Simply log in to get started.

Image: Shutterstock/Cristian Dina

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