Vitamin H

Labor Relations, Free Speech, and Three Options

By Jeff Hahn

True to Hahn’s “predictive” orientation, I’m sensing that the National Labor Relations Board has created future brand reputation challenges for lots of employers.

True to Hahn’s “predictive” orientation, I’m sensing that the National Labor Relations Board has created future brand reputation challenges for lots of employers. The NLRB ruling said, “employers cannot ask individual employees to choose between receiving benefits and exercising their rights.”

For many years, the use of non-disparagement and confidentiality provisions have been standard practice, especially in settling litigation, to reduce the penchant for lashing out. The NLRB’s ruling, however, provides former employees whose emotions are likely running high, license to emote publicly. If a person is mad about the fact, or even the way, they were let go from an employer, they are now welcome to hop onto social media, talk all about how badly your severance package sucks, vent to the world that management team/employer is terrible, and commence to trashing the brand with impunity. We can imagine how Open Mic Fridays are about to change.

Let’s get human for a moment. It’s never fun to go through a layoff, a right size, a restructuring, or even a termination. The emotional toll is high for those directly affected, and as happens in moments of profound loss, the itch for some retribution, some justice, a pound of flesh, etc., can be hard to resist.

Let’s also agree with the NLRB that speech protection is a good thing. What’s not a good thing, however, is reckless allegation slinging resulting in brand reputation erosion.

The challenge for brands is to avoid the natural instinct to retreat. A let-the-storm-pass logic easily takes hold in hopes that those who are throwing reputational stones will wear out at some point and move on. All strategies, including this rope-a-dope concept, exist on a continuum of options and can, therefore, be valid. The challenge in this new era, however, is one of both tone and volume. Many more voices can now feel free to pig pile on a reputation-destroying narrative making rope-a-dope a less than ideal option.

What’s a brand to do? Three things:

  • Inoculate with goodwill. Bad things happen to good companies. In those times, especially where people’s jobs are affected, it’s smart to have relationships set up outside the company that can counter a bad news narrative. A reservoir of goodwill, established over time, is a resiliency resource that helps absorb shocks from outside stakeholders. Make friends. Do good things in your community. Be a good citizen in many ways. Support causes your employees value. Be profitable, even in challenging times. All of these can generate goodwill.
  • Adopt a new set of social media protocols. Give your social media team latitude to quickly respond to patently false information. They should not get into the business of telling people whose feelings are hurt to look on the bright side, but they can acknowledge the challenge and share the dilemma. Engage through conversations vs. methodically constructed (and often too late) statements.
  • Stay on guard. The NLRB’s ruling means reputation bashing can be delayed, so having a good monitoring program setup to catch media and social mentions as they happen can provide an early warning system that a complaint narrative is going viral.

It’s not good to be in a situation where severances are the centerpiece of a conversation. What’s worse is being smacked in the aftermath of a bad day, with a lot more bad noise.