It sounds crazy: A male American Airlines flight attendant dresses up as a female executive and mocks his employer
in a series of videos. But just this sort of thing is turning into a trend companies can't ignore.
The flight attendant's videos aren't the only ones online that criticize American, and the airline's not the only company whose employees have turned to YouTube and other spots on the Web. Last fall, Starbucks fired a California barista for a song he posted about bad days and annoying customers. In summer 2010, a Best Buy employee who made videos on the site Xtranormal about mobile phones ended up indefinitely suspended. Even U.S. representatives aren't immune to the phenomenon.
Disciplining employees who badmouth or ridicule their employers online can be a tricky proposition, explains Gerald Baron, principal at Agincourt Strategies.
"It's not new that employees complain about their jobs, disparage their company or bosses, or use their complaints to entertain others," he says. "The risk is in the fact that these antics are now so easily spread through the Internet and so easily picked up by the media."
Allowing disparaging videos or tweets to go unchecked is unacceptable, but companies who come down too hard run the risk of looking like humorless killjoys or, worse yet, like "the man," Baron says. So what should they do?
Employers can't really rely on workers' fear of getting fired to keep them off blogs, Twitter, and video sites, Baron maintains. "The instant celebrity status of going viral means they have a whole new world of career opportunities."
The writer of the @BPGlobalPR Twitter account, for example, parlayed the account into a comedy career. (He was not a BP employee.) The singer who made the "United Breaks Guitars" song is now a highly coveted speaker. Or consider the story of another flight attendant, JetBlue's Steven Slater, who didn't even have to take his story online himself to be hailed as a "working-class hero."
Tripp Frohlichstein of MediaMasters Training says companies have to understand how social media is different from other forms of communication, and it’s changing all the time.
“If this employee had made his comments via ink on paper so only a handful of people had seen it, would the reaction of management been the same?” he asks.
All in the preparation
Norman Birnbach of Birnbach Communications points out that employees have an alternative to publicly shaming their employers, however: Keep their names out of it.
"Scott Adams distilled his experiences working at a large telecommunications company into 'Dilbert,' his comic strip that mocks the sort of companies he
worked for, without identifying the specific company in his cartoons," he says. "He held onto his day job at Pacific Bell for a long time before he
could afford to become a full-time cartoonist."
The best way for companies to avoid getting into a mess with employee-made videos is to set up a clear policy, says Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR and author of the book, "For Immediate Release."
"Like in any employment manual, things like this must be added and included for future use and enforcement," he says. "A policy where if someone wants to do a skit or something like this, there is a channel for approvals, like for times of holiday parties or office celebrations, but not random and not unapproved."
Baron agrees. He says written policies should make it clear that termination is the penalty for publicly embarrassing the company. On top of that, those policies should be communicated repeatedly.
Frohlichstein says employees should know the guidelines from the get-go.
“The policy might offer no restrictions on social media unless it reflects badly upon the organization,” he says. “Employees could be asked to agree to the policy upon hiring.”
Any policies a company makes should be very specific, he advises.
“If a flight attendant posts pictures in which he/she is in a suggestive pose, is that okay? If he or she is not identified as an employee of the company, is that okay? The key is to set parameters and give employees reasons for those parameters.”
Starbucks fired its barista, Best Buy suspended the employee who made the Xtranormal videos, and American should fire the flight attendant who made the video, Baron says. The key is communicating that the company did so in a way demonstrating that "showing respect for others, including employees and executives, is a core value of the company and those not able to share that value simply are not suited for the company," he says.
Birnbach says he doesn't think Starbucks lost any good will for firing its singer, but that doesn't mean companies can't show they have a sense of humor. "Starbucks could have, perhaps, issued a statement that the real problem was that Cristwell was partially out of uniform. Or American Airlines could say that David did not have clearance for that video."
American also needs to communicate the story behind the company's actions that prompted the videos in the first place, Torossian says.
"A firm cannot allow someone to be belittled or insulted, nor can a firm condone malicious actions that attack company policies designed to save jobs and the company," he says.