Employees are often seen as a company's greatest asset. But in today's highly competitive environment in which short-term contracts are increasingly the norm, wage pressure is unrelenting and information about your competitors' and colleagues' remuneration packages, or indeed about your company's environmental or financial misdeeds, is just a click away, your people can just as easily become a major hindrance.
And now, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Google and employer review sites such as Glassdoor, current and former employees can share their concerns or allegations immediately with whoever they think may care to listen. Unsurprisingly, instances of staff mouthing off about their bosses or colleagues on Facebook, getting into unseemly public scrapes on Twitter, having their emails shared with the world at large, resigning in full public view, or sharing thumb-drives of confidential or damaging information to third parties are all too common.
Fortunately most people value their careers and reputations and understand that what they say and do can reflect badly on themselves and on their employer. However mistakes are always going to be made, and the odd bad apple will always be a risk. What can you do to reduce the likelihood of your people bringing your company into disrepute in today's uber-networked world?
Most obviously, you need to ensure you have a strong, inclusive corporate culture and set of values that are lived and breathed at all times by leaders and managers. Nothing provides middle and junior ranks with a better excuse to go public with their concerns than leadership seen to be setting a bad example, having double standards and not listening to their people.
Beyond this here are three ways to reduce the likelihood of current and former employees straying into the spotlight or going rogue online:
1. Clarify behavioural grey areas.Many organisations have now developed internet and social media policies setting out how they expect their people to behave online with regard to confidentiality, privacy, harassment, racism and other hot button issues. Yet many grey areas remain, including the extent to which employees' freedom of expression and right to privacy are suitably balanced against the interests of your company and what this means in practice, and whether employees are able to use personal accounts on professional networks such as LinkedIn to solicit new business, and then to retain contacts made and stored on them during work hours. Get into the nooks and crannies of these and other blurred lines, make sure your people understand where you stand, train them properly and find ways gently to remind them going forward.
2. Define official online spokespeople. While most employees understand that only designated people can speak on the record to the mainstream media, the boundaries can be less clear online. Is commenting on an apparently harmless conversation on a low profile website permissible for anyone? In whose name? Are there situations in which engaging online is inadvisable or not permissible and, if so, when and for whom? It is therefore important you define carefully who can talk online on behalf of your company and in what circumstances. Many organisations only allow people to engage online who have been through the appropriate training, restricting interventions during a serious incident or crisis to the communications team, designated experts or company leadership.
3. Focus data security on people as much as technology. Given the large number of data breaches, and the fact that many of them are being carried out, or enabled by disgruntled employees, information security is understandably top of mind for many organisations. A comprehensive, strong IT policy and technology defences are critical, equally important is ensuring that your people do not just handle data safely and with integrity but see it as in their interests to spot and report unusual behaviour or patterns inside and outside your firewall, from potential phishing attacks and data dumps of confidential or damaging information, to complaints or allegations about your culture, values, company strategy or colleagues on the social web, and derogatory or fake Twitter profiles, Facebook pages and blogs.
People are always going to make mistakes online. And little can stop an aggrieved employee who is out to get you come what may. However the three actions above will reduce the likelihood of the most common gaffes being made online and mean you are in stronger position to spot problems early and therefore tackle them more effectively when they occur.
Charlie Pownall is a communications adviser and author of Managing Online Reputation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). CrowdControlHQ CEO James Leavesley was interviewed and is quoted in the book.