When Employees Behave Badly

Avert Crisis with Preparedness

There’s an old saying that the only things that are absolutely certain are death and taxes.

Close behind is the reality that forms the basis for Murphy’s Law: sooner or later, despite our best efforts, something is going to go wrong, and we’ll have to answer for it, or at least explain it in a satisfactory manner.

Bad online reviews can dampen business, and should be dealt with promptly (as covered in a previous blog) to mitigate the ill effects. A significant error or lawsuit can become a major news story, depending on the circumstances.

Then there’s the human factor. Employees saying things they shouldn’t under the auspices of the organization, or worse, physicians or employees behaving badly. Whether it’s a misguided social media post, a verbal smack-down or physical altercation caught on camera, or a criminal act, you need to act quickly to minimize the impact on the organization and move toward mending public perception.

People Behaving Badly

Take the case of a national home care agency, with thousands of employees offering wonderful, compassionate care to their clients and making a difference in thousands of lives each day. Alas, like every industry, there are a few employees who shouldn’t be in their roles, who lack integrity, or don’t respect the trust they’ve been given.

When news broke that an employee – or in this case an independent contractor working as a caregiver – had stolen cash and jewelry from a client’s home, SPRYTE had to dust off the crisis communications playbook. The arrest, including perp walk, made local television news in the city where it occurred, and had the potential to spread beyond, as negative news often does. The franchise office which contracted the caregiver was facing blowback, and even other nearby franchises that had nothing to do with the incident were fielding calls of concern from clients and were asking for help.

Have a Plan, Then Work It

Every organization should have a crisis communications plan, with some basic steps. Of course, these will evolve or change with specific circumstances, but generally, you’ll want to designate a single spokesperson, develop talking points, and establish a means of providing timely, accurate information to those affected and other contingencies. Here are some specific steps to think about when the crisis involves the actions of an employee:

  • Assess the situation. See how it is being reported, and how widely. Is it a one-and-done story or does it have “legs” to carry it through more than a single news cycle? Are other outlets picking it up? Is the incident ranking high in online searches of the company name? In our sample case, we learned one television station ran the story on air and on its website, and that was the extent of it. It appeared near the top of a Google News search, but was several pages down on a general Google search.
  • Create talking points for various audiences. Limit this to the facts you know, and include mitigating information if there is any. SPRYTE learned that the victim of the theft didn’t even want to report her suspicions to the police because she liked the caregiver so much, and that it was the agency itself that encouraged her to contact the authorities. This kind of proactivity shows the company is ethical and trustworthy, even if the employee wasn’t. Also, we included the point that this was a 1099 contractor, not a regular employee, while acknowledging that to the public and clients, that distinction is meaningless.
  • Empower your managers. Since this was a local-level story, we briefed the franchise owner on how to answer questions that might come up, from either the media or clients’ families. Essentially, she was prepped to be the front-line representative for the company. We also shared separate talking points with neighboring offices.
  • Brainstorm all scenarios. Come up with a list of “what-ifs” addressing all eventualities so you or your front-line staff are ready for them. In this case, we created a table with the headings “If this happens” and “We’ll do this” and listed potential issues and how to react. Sometimes, the response was as simple as “refer the reporter to the corporate office, which will respond per the talking points.”

 

As Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director immortalized in Apollo 13, memorably said, “Let’s work the problem. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” Take the time to gather all the relevant information, then monitor the situation and respond with facts, not conjecture. By being transparent, and addressing the concerns of your publics in a timely and accurate manner, you’ll go a long way toward minimizing the damage to your organization’s reputation.