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Don't let unhappy employees trash your company's reputation

Sticks & stonesWhen an employee quits in a huff, an exchange of words is not unusual. But sometimes the communication continues in ways that the former employer never expected.



Take the case of a reporter who resigned his job at a small Connecticut newspaper a few years ago. When he left, he thought the paper owed him overtime. The paper disagreed.

Ultimately, he filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and received $3,000 in back wages. But he didn't stop there. For more than a year, he also was a force on an Internet stock message board where postings relentlessly focused on alleged shortcomings of the publication and its corporate parent.

Although the former employee has since bowed out of the online conversations, other messages continue to slam the paper and its executives.

Start with those still on payroll
It's no big surprise when former employees complain. However, Wayne A. Hersh, labor attorney for Berger Kahn in Irvine, Calif., points out that workers don't have to leave a company to badmouth it, so don't make it easy for them.

Hersh advises that you put current employees on notice: "If you use company resources for running your mouth, you can be disciplined or fired."

Enforce this warning by including two key policies in the company handbook.

The first one should say: "The employee should have no expectation of privacy in his desk, locker or computer. Anything that is company property is subject to being examined by the company." That way, if you think the employee is sending out nasty e-mails or uncomplimentary letters on company time, you have a right to take a look.

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The second provision should warn: "The use of company computers, telephones, faxes, mail services or anything else owned by the firm for an employee's personal business can result in disciplinary action, including termination."

Consider, carefully, nondisparagement agreements
Nondisparagement agreements (NDAs) also can control corporate trash talking.

NDAs are usually tied to financial incentives. They award cash damages for each proven derogatory remark. The company doesn't have to prove actual damages.

But the agreements can be unenforceable for several reasons. It's hard to verify who said what. Even if you do, getting money from someone who doesn't have it isn't usually worth the trouble.

Plus, making the fuss required to enforce an NDA can be a public relations nightmare. Just ask When the online bookseller recently asked departing employees to sign NDAs, the company got a world of grief for its trouble.

The union representing Amazon employees urged its members not to sign. Amazon reacted by saying it was unlikely to be able to enforce the agreements anyway. Ultimately, Amazon rescinded them for most workers, but not without taking a blow to its image.

Miriam Wugmeister, partner in the labor and employment department of the New York City office of Morrison & Foerster, says she tells clients who ask about NDAs that they are virtually worthless. "I think that they don't have a strong deterrent effect," says Wugmeister, "and the likelihood that the employer is going to be able to enforce them is practically nil."

If you still want to give such an agreement a try, Hersh suggests that you make the agreement mutual. Your company won't give out anything but confirmation that the employee once worked there; in return, the employee agrees to be equally discreet.

Hersh also advises that if you're paying out severance, do so in periodic payments. Should the employee breach the agreement, he says, stop payment. That puts the burden on the employee to prove that he didn't break the contract.

Even so, Hersh warns that this is a tough area of contract law and the attorneys handling the case are the only ones likely to get either money or satisfaction out of the deal.

The best solution: play nice
What all this probably boils down to is that if you want employees to say nice things about you, you have to treat them well.

It's not a revolutionary idea, but one that's frequently overlooked. It shouldn't be. Experts say it works.

Lou Hampton, president of the Hampton Group Inc., a Washington, D.C., public relations company that specializes in damage control, says the first rule is to listen.

"It's the cheapest and the most under-used solution," he says.

Remember, too, that employees who feel they aren't being treated fairly generally want an audience. If they don't get one internally, they'll be likely to seek an external one.

"So keep the door open," says Hampton. "Hear what employees have to say and make sure they understand your viewpoint as well."

Easing the separation
And since your company is most vulnerable to attack by people who leave unhappy, plan before layoffs or dismissals to ease the termination.

Don't let the dismissal be a surprise. If it's a performance issue, offer counseling and warnings in advance. If the company is in financial trouble, keep the staff apprised of the situation.

Offer as generous a severance policy as you can. Know what your competitors offer and do as well or better.

Help former employees find new jobs. Make calls to potential employers, help exiting workers create professional resumes and even let them continue to use equipment, such as computers and copiers, for a transition period or sell them these tools at cost.

As for workers who stay with the company, help them understand what happened and offer an honest assessment of what may come next.

These techniques can help make the separation less painful and reduce the likelihood that former, and remaining, workers will criticize you publicly.

Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing editor based in Michigan.

-- Posted: Oct. 26, 2001

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See Also
Part 2: Diffusing online harassment of your company
How to be fair, legal when you fire an employee
Fumbled firings make a bad situation worse
Putting ex-employees to work for you
Don't litigate. Mediate.

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