Don't let unhappy employees trash your company's reputation
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
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.
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
Nondisparagement agreements (NDAs) also can control corporate
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 Amazon.com. 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,"
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
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