Only You Can Prevent Social Media Fires

by · February 14, 201324 comments

It’s not every week that we have the opportunity to watch two separate social media disasters unfold in real-time. After last week’s Applebee’s social media catastrophe that followed the firing of Chelsea Welch (who was let go after posting a photo of a stiffed tip on Reddit), many of us thought that it’d be a bit of time before we would see another brand get dragged into the social media spotlight for letting go of an employee. Boy, were we wrong.

The very next day, HMV announced massive layoffs, including the termination of the company’s own social media planner who live tweeted her own firing right from the company handle. Both incidents serve as a reminder that in the age of self-publishing, nothing done behind glass doors can be considered private. They also provide us with some great lessons for avoiding your own termination nightmare.

Unfortunately, sometimes people need to be let go.  As uncomfortable as it is to talk about, you occasionally need to pull the trigger and terminate an employee. In these situations, it’s common for tensions and emotions to run high, resulting in rash actions and passionate displays of discontent. So how can you mitigate the public backlash that can come from letting someone go?

Set Guidelines for Acceptable and Unacceptable Social Behavior

First your company needs to set specific guidelines for what is and is not acceptable in social media. If posting a photo of a client’s tip receipt is unacceptable and grounds for termination, then ensure that all employees are aware of this. Include these social behavior guidelines in all training materials and in the employment contracts your employees sign. If an employee knows that they can be terminated for sending an irate tweet about their employer, they are going to be less likely to take that action. Further, they’ll be less surprised/upset if they get terminated for sending that tweet.

The Facebook wall can serve as a modern day Union Hall, and the NLRB is working to keep it that way.

However, be aware of what you can and cannot fire someone for in regards to their social media behavior. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) frequently rules on whether or not terminations based on social media behavior are lawful and has put together some guidelines to advise companies on how to shape their social media policies. For example, employees that go on a rant on their Facebook wall about their employing company are not protected by the NLRB, but employees that are having an active discussion about their working environment on Facebook are protected. In many ways the Facebook wall can serve as a modern day Union Hall, and the NLRB is working to keep it that way.

Your social media policies should specifically cover what is unacceptable social media behavior. A blanket statement banning all negative mention of the company or its employees isn’t going to cut it.  Your policies also need to identify what social media behavior is acceptable. Providing crystal clear examples of what is and is not okay can help mitigate confusion and promote broader internal acceptance of your social media policies.

Have A Termination Communications Strategy In Place

Having worked in an agency environment for my entire professional career, I understand the value of a termination communications strategy. When an employee is let go or moves on to a new opportunity, it’s vital that this information be communicated to the client in a way that makes the client feel secure in the agency relationship. In large or public companies, it’s not uncommon for a public announcement or press release to be sent out when a C-level or senior level employee leaves the company. These announcements help to assure the public that the company is still a solid investment opportunity, and assure employees that their job is still safe.

Letting an irate employee have access to your Twitter stream is like giving a pyromaniac a lighter and a couple sticks of dynamite.

Now, I’m not advocating that a press release be sent out for all employee terminations. I am, however, saying that thought and care must be given when you’re firing an employee with a large public following or who handles your social media channels. Before terminating an employee that manages your social media channels you want to ensure that access to these platforms have been disabled for that employee. Letting an irate employee have access to your Twitter stream is like giving a pyromaniac a lighter and a couple sticks of dynamite.

Be sure that the passwords and account information for all social media platforms are known and controlled by senior level employees from different departments. This allows a team leader to remove an employee from a social platform without losing access to the platform themselves. A better solution is to use a social media tool that grants user access to the social media platform, as the user can be removed from the platform easily and you won’t have to change a password that 80 other people in the company also use.

If you are going to terminate someone, it’s best to revoke their social media platform access during the termination interview. Doing it too early can cause confusion for an employee that might not be aware they are being let go and are instead wondering why their password doesn’t work. Doing it after termination could be too late, especially in a world where it takes less than a second to make a 144 character blast public to the world.

Handling Bad PR

If you find yourself on the back side of a social media nightmare, don’t automatically rush in and try to fix everything. Ask yourself if you truly need to get involved. Sometimes the best move is to lie low and let everything blow over. I’m sure Applebee’s can agree to that. If a response is deemed necessary, then deliver a statement, apologize if necessary and then stop antagonizing the situation. Better yet learn from the negative PR and use the moment as a catalyst for change. Take a lesson from Domino’s, who after firing two employees based on the content they posted on YouTube, has since turned the focus of the company around to make it more customer-centric.

It’s never easy to let an employee go, and there are myriad considerations to take in when contemplating the decision. Social media needs to be one of those considerations. Learn from the mistakes of others and avoid your own headaches and late night panic attacks.

Has your company ever experienced negative public backlash for terminating an employee? Share your story below.

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About Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner is the Director of Client Services for SME Digital, the digital marketing extension of Social Media Explorer. During his career as a digital strategist, Jason has worked with a variety of large and small companies including: NAPA AUTO PARTS, NASCAR, Kraft, Wal-Mart and Wrangler. His passion: creating powerful digital marketing strategies that drive results. Oh, and he does improv comedy. Follow his antics @jaspooner.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Dara Khajavi

    When Google announced Google+, I was excited to see how Google+ would affect businesses. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have really changed the way many businesses approach marketing, communicating with customers, and promotion. At first, I was disappointed with Google+. It was not very popular, and its growth was slow. However, this has changed. Although Google+ is not as commonly used as Facebook, Google+ definitely has an important presence in business and networking. I look forward to Google+’s continued evolution. 

    • Greg Narayan

      True Dara, it still holds unlocked potential for businesses. It may not be as defined as FB and Twitter for businesses, but the implications on Search results are something to really watch out for.

  • C. Erickson

    Your link to Authorship Guidelines (under #9) points to the old guidelines. Was this intentional? There is a link at the top of that page to the newer, simplified authorship guidelines. 

    • TheJayKelly

      Thanks for the heads up!  The updated link is now active in the post.

  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com Shily-Virtual Office Assistant

    Social Media platform is ideal for different uses and should therefore have a customized startegy. Google + has good marketing tools and now it has black belt level also thanks for this informative post.

  • Dara Khajavi

     I followed the two recent social media disasters mentioned in this article, and I was really surprised by how badly the respective businesses handled the situation. It is about time that businesses take Social Media more seriously. These disasters were completely avoidable. 

    • Jason Spooner

      Exactly why I wrote this article! Some crises can’t be avoided, but most can with proper training and a good strategy. Thanks for the comment. 

  • http://www.leadsandappointments.com/ Anika Davis

    Google+ is quickly becoming an essential part of any business’s social media strategy. We should use it wisely because it is one of the best marketing tool. Those strategies that you’ve mentioned is a great help.

  • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

    Greg, This is a well-done article, and a number of us with large followings on Google+ were getting ready to share it….but we didn’t. Here’s why. You don’t set an example of what you teach. Your profile has no public posts. None at all. At the end of your post you ask me to “chat with you on Google+.” Why would I? You have nothing there for me to engage with.

    • Greg Narayan

      Glad problem is fixed now Mark! Jeez yeah, I guess I did miss out on some interactions. 

      • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

        Awesome Greg. Some of us who have been around G+ for a while are a little more sensitive to this issue. Back last year there were a number of highly-publicized and cited web articles in large audience publications that proclaimed Google+ was a failure and a “ghost town.” Almost invariably, when we looked at the account of the author (if they even had one), they had nothing posted publicly, and/or never engaged with people who did circle them. 

        Glad to see you’ve come into the light ;-)

  • Carol Dodsley

    Totally agree with Mark Traphangen’s comment below – this is a well thought out and great article that has some very insightful tips, yet you yourself only have a small following on G+ and no posts to view to find out more about you.  Is this because you have only just started on Google or because you are not using it yourself, but are learning the “theory” at this stage?

    • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

      Carol, Greg’s a stand up guy. Shortly after I posted my comment he started posting publicly on Google+ and thanked those of us who had challenged him to do so. I think he’s already getting a hint at the kind of awesome engagement you can get there that we already know so well.

    • Greg Narayan

      Hey Carol,
      Well compared to the guys I’ve G+ed with today, I’m at total beginner. I LOVE learning the theory. And I was posting a lot (non-publicly by mistake) prior to today. Browse my blog if you have time, it’s a very public-minded place. I’ll just end with saying I’m super stoked by the traction off of this post, proud to post here. And thanks Mark, always up to a challenge!

  • Melissa

    With social media here to stay, it is important for businesses and managers to discuss what behavior the company deems as appropriate, ethical, etc. involving employees and social media. I believe it will be a trial-and-error thing, but this article offers some great advice about handling situations that may arise. 

    • Jason Spooner

      I agree 100% with you Melissa. There is no one-size-fits-all policy that will work for every company, but there are some common considerations that should be taken into account when crafting company-specific policies. Thanks for commenting!  

  • http://RxSEO.net/ Gregory Smith

    I found this post to be really useful. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and well…. 

    Great post!

  • http://www.callboxinc.co.uk/ Oliver Scott

    A lot of times in crisis situations, companies will let their social accounts go dark than face the doomsday with their names in the trending topics list. The Internet is a fast and sometimes unforgiving space unless you address your mistake immediately. You have to care about your audience and take social media seriously. Crisis situations are inevitably going to come up. Use a proper strategy to avoid disasters.

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  • http://www.papersonthedot.co.uk/research-proposal/ phd proposal service

    Lol the title of this post is fetchy .. loved reading this.

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  • http://myhox.com/ Ramesh Thapa

    Google Plus is becoming more popular in these days and most of the gmail account holders are participating on Google + community to share their views, images, comment, videos etc. Therefore, we can use this social media tools to uplift the site’s visibility and increase the traffic.

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