Responding to negative feedback on social media – a starter kit for employers

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The last few years have seen an interesting shifting of power from employers to employees in ways we had never really seen before. A work culture that inherently rewarded, even celebrated, set-in-stone hierarchical structures and the often unfair power equation between bosses and teams, employers and employees is suddenly so much more vulnerable to public naming and shaming at worst, and an anonymous Glassdoor review at best.

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For instance, last week, Cadila’s Head of Corporate Communications Mukund Trivedy wrote about the excruciating experience he had during his short stint at the organization. With over 18,000 likes and 2,500 comments on LinkedIn alone, along with some press coverage, the story quickly went viral. Then there was the story of a Tumblr blog post written by an ex-employee from Swiggy that revealed several malpractices within the start up. You can read Swiggy’s response here. Even a quick glance through Glassdoor will reveal reams of negative feedback from past and current employees. TVF too was in a soup over an anonymous article on Medium alleging sexual harassment against founder and CEO Arunabh Kumar.

I am rather conflicted about how anonymous or non-anonymous feedback shapes the personal brand of the employee. That being said, I can’t help but wonder if the feedback is truly unjustified or unfair. If organizations took exit interviews seriously instead of dismissing all opinions as “rants of disgruntled ex-employees”, things could have been a whole lot better. But having seen the kind of over-confidence and arrogance that often meets employee feedback in most organizations, I am no longer surprised that employees are choosing other platforms to voice their opinions and personal experiences.

The question is, what can organizations do in such times to protect their reputation and tell their side of the story?

Be nice, employers

Like all other reputation issues, prevention is much better than cure. It is about time employers, founders, managers and bosses realized two facts. First, social media has given employees voices and a platform. Your behaviour and culture are that much more transparent now. Second, and more importantly, professional behaviour and empathy for employees is much easier to deliver than you realize. Doing right by your staff and your employer brand is not just a sign of a great employer anymore, it is critical for your business and reputation.

Have strong processes in place for employee feedback. Listen and respond, regularly. Take exit interviews seriously, focusing single-mindedly on the message, not on the delivery, the language, or the individual. Don’t base your trainings and workshops on what you “feel” is happening. Have facts at hand and take corrective action whenever necessary. Make gender equality and non-violent communication non-negotiable, no matter what the size of your organization is or how little bandwidth you think you have, considering the life-altering work you are doing.

Train your leaders and managers in professional behaviour, delivering constructive criticism and building healthy team dynamics. Reiterate your healthy culture relentlessly, make it a shared goal, and take a no-excuses approach to deviations. Your employees need to see you take your commitment to healthy culture in action; it can’t just be empty words framed and hanging in your uber-cool meeting rooms.

A healthy culture is the hallmark of successful organizations. You could be doing your PR and marketing right, but if you don’t treat your employees well, your reputation will suffer eventually. Don’t let it come in the way of all the other great work you might be doing.

Know when to respond

Reputation experts strongly believe that not all negative feedback that comes to light needs response. Some disgruntled low-performers could just be taking out their angst on social media anonymously. If the insinuations are not too serious, it might be acceptable to let them go. Any response might just open a can of worms from which there is no going back. But if such feedback becomes too frequent or starts to make headlines, you might need to respond.

But some situations demand an immediate response. For instance, you made a genuine mistake or did wrong by the employee for which there is no real justification. In instances of serious insinuations, if you are not aware of the truth, you should commit to investigating.

Even instances when an ex-employee is fabricating facts need immediate and firm response. Often, online negative feedback opens a can of worms simply by developing legs. Watch and respond before the feedback garners too many versions of “me too” and goes viral within your community of customers and stakeholders or the general public.

Another situation, which is ever too frequent these days, is someone else getting offended by the feedback on your behalf and responding frivolously or rudely. This is rather dangerous because what is essentially just exchange of personal opinions between two people can be perceived as a reflection on you. It is important that you somewhat try to control this narrative by saying the right things (and doing them too).

Most importantly, know how to respond

It is human nature that when cornered publicly, on social media for instance, our worst defensive tendencies kick in. We want to rubbish opinions and take away the reviewer’s credibility. As a flawed human being, it could be your first reaction, but as far as reputation management is concerned, it is often also the worst and most dangerous one.

Listen, stay calm, and apologize if you made a mistake. Tell your side of the story, but sincerely and with no excuses. At the very least, if you are unsure of the facts, commit to investigating and closing the loop within a reasonable timeline.

It is also extremely important that you don’t rubbish the claims at the get-go. Your ex-employee is relating personal experiences. Dismissing them without so much as an investigation or a thought-through response is often more a sign of arrogance than of being right.

No matter what you say or how your respond, it is extremely crucial that you commit to getting better. Your organization is made up of all kinds of individuals. That is what inclusive cultures are all about. There could be difficult situations which you consider light-hearted or bearing no greater meaning. But they might be making or breaking the experience a certain section of employee has in your organization. For instance, your male employees could perceive casual sexism as “normal”, but it significantly affects the experience your women employees have with you. Casual racism falls in the same category. As the discourse on these social issues gets stronger and more and more people are exposed to what a truly inclusive and diverse culture really means, employers need to be on their toes much more than before.

You may not have known that casual sexism or racism is happening in your teams. But if you do know now, it means you need to take quick corrective action. Promise to do it, and then do it. Everyone makes mistakes; employers and organizations are no different. It is the ability to set things straight and make amends that differentiates the good, trusted, evolving employer brands from the rest of the close-minded crowd.

Preparation is key

With the world getting as transparent as it is thanks to social media, every organization, irrespective of its size, needs crisis preparedness more than ever before. When I say preparedness, I don’t just mean a laundry list of drawer statements and Q&As. I mean being completely aware of possible vulnerabilities and preparing to respond when they surface. These are issues you might not have thought of before or that might seem extremely inconsequential till it makes it to a viral Twitter thread or blog post.

An angry, abusive leader who is otherwise really good at his job is a pretty good example of this. Read through your exit interviews, listen deeply and actively to employee and customer sentiments, and open channels for communication. Take corrective action immediately, but also prepare to respond if these sentiments make it to social media.

Brands of today live in a world where all it takes is an anonymous tweet to destroy the trust of their community, industry, and stakeholders. It is an especially intimidating proposition for small- to medium-size businesses with limited resources to spend on HR issues, crisis preparation, and online reputation management. But preparation and prevention need to be seen as investments to protect your growing organization from a damaged reputation in the long run because of inadvertent mistakes. It is money and time well-spent. How far along are you in your journey of building an employer brand that is invincible even in the age of social media?

Read Also: How to take constructive criticism in your stride