When Association Brand Damage is Caused Off the Clock
In recent events, some people engaged in deplorable behaviour were publicly identified and subsequently fired by their employers as a result. Why? Because those companies understandably did not want to suffer brand damage by having their names associated with the (former) employees' activities.
But why were these companies worried about how their employees' actions would reflect on them [the employer] when the employees were off hours? Surely employers need only concern themselves with what employees do while "on the clock," right?
Even when acting in a capacity that represents their employer, or a not-for-profit if a volunteer, individuals can still easily be associated with the organization. This easily results in guilt by association simply because your organization's name gets brought up alongside that of the employee or volunteer. Beyond the brand damage that may result, there may also be an expectation that your association will take steps to deal with the volunteer or employee despite the activity having occurred elsewhere than work. So, what are your organization's responsibilities and options?
Dealing with the Employee or Volunteer
Depending on just what abhorrent activity your employee or volunteer got up to on their own time, the guilt by association it conjures may also create an expectation for your organization to take action. Racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory posts on social media, for example, where all viewers can see the person's employer (you) may result in an outcry for you to take action.
The first step is for your organization to decide if there is a need for it to take action. Were the posts directly opposed to the objectives, cause, and/or ethical standards your organization represents? Do they promote a product, service, or something else that stands as a direct conflict of interest to their position with your organization? Is the backlash something that can be smoothed over or will quickly die out, or is an immediate response warranted?
Next, find out when the activities occurred. Even though the behaviour in question occurred on their personal social media, for example, was it done on company time? Alternatively, did the employee take time off to engage in said activity under pretenses? Did they call in sick so they could attend an event that promotes a belief contrary to the organization's brand, for instance? The former is more cut-and-dry than the latter in so far as using one's personal social media on their employer's time means they weren't doing the work they are paid for or volunteered to help with. What's more, the line between the company's identity and that of the individual is understandably more blurred.
The third step is deciding how to address the employee or volunteer in question. What course of action is best for the organization, the offender, and the customers or audience the offender has aggrieved?
In some cases, a formal write-up and/or talking to that affirms the organization's policies, brand image, and rules may be all that is necessary. However, it is also possible that the offender may need to be released from the organization outright. Regardless, if you react with a knee jerk before doing your due diligence, you could land your organization in hot water. So, no matter what you decide, ensure that you are following your organization's protocols and that they are in turn in full compliance with your applicable laws and regulations.
How to Handle Brand Damage Control
Although you are dealing with the offending employee or volunteer, what can you do about fixing the damage their activities have caused your brand? Considering the damage happened in the public eye, it is very likely whatever you do will also have to be public so the offended parties can see your organization is taking the problem seriously.
Again, first checking the applicable laws and regulations, you should consider if announcing the consequences for the offender should be made public. Be careful about this, as this itself may result in public backlash if not done properly and with dignity (and perhaps even then), and may expose the organization to liability. Telling the public the offending employee has been fired may make most of your outraged customers happy, but you will also get people who think you went too far and the employee may believe you overstepped labour laws with claims that you shamed them in a way that made new employment unfairly difficult.
Depending on the severity of the brand damage, you may want to hire a public relations consultant to help repair the harm.
Regardless of the tactics you choose, keeping quiet and bunkering down for the storm to blow over rarely works. It is usually perceived as a lack of concern and failure to address the problem. A high level of transparency is typically required if you are to regain the public's trust in your brand.
The Legalities of Guilt by Association
As previously mentioned, always know what your legal footing is before acting. Unless the employee or volunteer has signed some manner of internal policy or otherwise acted in a way that is clearly outlined in applicable labour laws, brand damage via guilt by association is not a simple defense for taking action against the offender. Even if it seems like common sense to fire someone for something they did on their own time, for instance, the law may protect the employee's right to act as they wish when not on your time.
Always remember, labour laws exist to protect employees and not an employer's brand. From personal experience, I can tell you that the extent of this is such that you can get two different answers to the same question when you contact the Labour Board, depending on whether you identify yourself as the employee or employer in the same situation. So, double check your legal footing when it comes to concerns of guilt by association brand damage, and consult a lawyer if possible before acting.
Never forget that, no matter why you are taking action against an employee or volunteer, you can cause further brand damage if your organization becomes engaged in a legal fight with that person. Many people are willing to overlook the offender's infraction when it comes to the public perception of the "Little Guy" fighting against the wrongs of a big, bad organization, regardless of facts.
Repairing Brand Damage due to Employee / Volunteer Misconduct
No matter the details of your strategy for repairing the inflicted brand damage, do not lose sight of it all boils down to trust. Your customers, members, and/or broader audience have lost some or all of their trust in your organization's brand. Regaining this trust has to be the end goal of your efforts.
In some cases, your organization may need to be willing to allow more egg to splash on its face if that means regaining faith in your brand. In the most extreme circumstances, someone may even need to throw themselves on their sword, so to speak, for the organization's efforts to be seen as serious.
Of course, the best way to deal with brand damage due to guilt by association is to reduce the risk of it happening to begin with. If your organization does not already have them in place, take steps to create official policies regarding how employees and volunteers continue to act as brand ambassadors in their off-hours or while using their personal social media and the like. Get everyone to read the policies and sign off on them, getting new signatures whenever changes and updates are made. Awareness of such policies can cut through the misconception that employees are free to do as they like on their own time, no matter how negatively perceived it may be.
In her book, Social Intelligence Demystified: How Associations Can Master The New Rules of Engagement in the Digital World , Julie King explains how not-for-profit organizations fit in the digital world and how their leadership must adjust to get by successfully within that environment. Although Julie does not directly address the issues raised in this article, her book will help you better understand how such problems can arise and how organizations can be better prepared for them.