A restaurant server, irritated after dealing with some particularly difficult customers, airs her grievances via social media. A common occurrence in a complaint-driven online world, perhaps, but this time the employee added some pistol emojis. Police involvement ensued and the restaurant operator was left to deal with the aftermath.
It’s a true story and one Carrie Luxem used to illustrate the vast array of situations employers face as workers more frequently share opinions and experiences—good, bad and sometimes disgusting (remember a particular taco shell-licking incident?)—on various social media platforms. Put measures in place to prevent such situations, she advised, along with protocol for dealing with them if they do happen.
"It’s always a good practice for companies to be well organized and have an employee handbook with a strong social media policy," said Luxem, Restaurant HR Group’s founder, president and CEO. "And you really need to spell out and talk about what’s expected and what is appropriate, not just put it in a handbook."
On Luxem’s list of dos for creating a social media policy are: use precise language (the National Labor Relations Board has a history of targeting policy language considered subjective or vague); provide specific examples of acceptable versus questionable/inappropriate online activity; explain that employees using company computers—including tablets and mobile devices—should have no expectation of privacy; encourage the use of best judgment; and have an attorney review the policy to ensure it aligns with National Labor Relations Act guidelines.
Employers don’t necessarily have the right to fire workers for social media postings involving the restaurant, as Chipotle found out earlier this year when an administrative judge in Pennsylvania ruled the chain’s social media policy violated federal labor laws. Chipotle fired James Kennedy after he criticized the company on Twitter for what he considered to be low wages and later circulated a petition about employees being unable to take breaks.
"An employer may not prohibit employee postings that are merely false or misleading," Judge Susan A. Flynn wrote in her ruling. "Rather, in order to lose the Act’s protection, more than a false or misleading statement by the employee is required; it must be shown that the employee had a malicious motive."
Employers must be mindful of free speech and labor laws, said myHRcounsel CEO Mark Young, who noted restaurant owners have more potential issues to contend with given changing rules surrounding family medical leave and paid sick time.
"Where the Department of Labor gets involved is unfair labor practices … you know, ‘my employer made me work 100 hours and I missed my son’s baseball game,’" said Young. "Those incidents, they take notice."
Along with having clear, written employee manuals that each worker signs, Young said having a point person or team to handle incidents and any resulting media attention is equally important.
"Who should deal with it is as much a part of how you should deal with it," he said. "You want to know, if a reporter walks up to the cash register, if they call, they email, what do you do about it.
"Have one message and polish up that message."
Hiring practices, too, play a role in potential HR nightmares, especially in a tight labor market.
"In desperate times, people make these rash decisions and focus too much on just availability and what [the applicant] wants to make," said Luxem. "They overlook that oh, you’ve never stayed anywhere longer than six months."
Avoid revolving door recruiting, she continued and "really make sure they’re in line with the values of the company."
Perhaps more important than any policy or procedure, however, is developing a connection with employees so they take ownership of their actions and want to positively represent the restaurant, said Luxem.
"My advice is always focus on developing a great place to work," she said. "If people feel cared about, the possibility of things blowing up in some big PR nightmare really lessens. People want to feel cared about and respected."