Only You Can Prevent Social Media Fires

Is Your Termination Policy a Social Media Fire Waiting to Happen?

by Jason Spooner |

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 the Author

Jason Spooner

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.