How's the ex? Former employees can help or hinder your brand

Ex-employees still have the ability to damage your brand.

Comments on social media can trash a company's reputation fast. So how can your business guard against the gripes and keep ex-employees as advocates for the brand?

Companies have never had total control over the brands they own. Word-of-mouth has always had a big impact. But in 2015, in a world connected through social media, the risks to a company’s reputation from disgruntled employees or unhappy customers are much greater.

Warren Buffett once said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

In the US, 50 per cent of employees post messages, pictures or videos on social media about their employers. The vast majority are positive, but on the negative side, 16 per cent have shared criticism or adverse comments.

Clearly, in an age of Glassdoor and Vault, negative social media can cause serious brand damage, and with it dire commercial consequences.

The way people work has changed, too. People used to stay in their jobs for longer, if not for life, so there were far fewer “loose cannons”. Today, the average employee remains at a particular job for just 4.4 years.

Millennials hang around for less than three years, and could hold somewhere from 15 to 20 jobs over their working lives. As a result, the likelihood that at least one job will end in acrimony is also high, and they will broadcast their versions of why on social media.

Thanks to social media, ex-employees now have louder voices than ever, and an audience that wants to listen. So how can your business protect itself?

What's at stake

Legal action is one way for organisations to defend themselves against social media comment, but it’s better kept as a weapon of last resort.

“Most employers won’t waste their time or money trying to prosecute posts on social media, but if the criticisms are blatantly false, malicious and seriously damaging, lawsuits might be their only recourse,” says Anne Morrow, a South Africa-based human resources executive.

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To put this in perspective, US$3.6 trillion in retail sales are directly influenced by online reviews and social media. Clearly, the bottom line impact of adverse comments can be huge.

E-commerce and social media are giving employees (former and existing), as well as consumers, greater influence over corporate behaviour. As Sodexo chief operating officer Michael Norris notes in his firm’s recently released 2015 Workplace Trends Report:

“When workers and customers can instantly share their opinions of a company with thousands of people, concerns like morale, transparency and fairness [must] become an integral part of how businesses manage their reputation.”

In other words, the best way to short-circuit anyone intent on inflicting reputational damage is to take away their perceived grounds for doing so.

A better way

A good strategy for keeping former employees on-side – and even make them ambassadors for your brand – is to establish a corporate alumni network.

Social media has made it very inexpensive to do just that, and potential benefits to the bottom line such as job candidate and customer referrals, eventual rehiring of past employees and third-party industry intelligence, should make it a no-brainer.

“But only if you do it well,” Morrow warns.

“Most don’t. In fact, I’m not sure the majority of [alumni] groups even have a relationship with their former companies. It’s an opportunity going begging.”

Professional services firm Deloitte, however, has successfully created its own LinkedIn groups for alumni, all specifically designed to help former employees stay in contact with their one-time colleagues. It even includes information on alumni events and resources.

EY (Ernst & Young) also invites alumni to participate on its Facebook page.

Fail-Safe

This is a great strategy if you accept that, for the majority of ex-employees, it is in their own self-interest not to burn bridges. Unfortunately, there is also a minority which will have an axe to grind.

In such circumstances, Morrow says, exit interviews are next to useless.

This is why, as the number of people commenting, sharing, liking and tweeting every aspect of their life continues to grow, having a social media policy is now vital.

On this particular subject, Morrow emphasises that an effective social media policy: “Has to include explicit provisions preventing the misuse of social media by ex-employees.”

But beware – according to the US National Labor Relations Board, several companies have been found to have unlawful social media policies, as they could stop workers discussing wages and conditions.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Bank (CBA) was targeted by the Finance Services Union a few years ago because it was seen to be overstepping the boundary between an employer’s right to protect its reputation, and an employee’s right to a private life.

The CBA’s social media policy had required staff to report to their manager any negative comments about CBA on social networks – including those made by non-employees – and to help remove material that was inappropriate. The union said a bank employee could potentially have faced the sack if one of their friends posted something negative about CBA on their Facebook wall.

The bank agreed to consult with the union to make the policy more workable.

Of course, everyone should have the right to speak their mind but, equally, embittered former employees should also consider whether they have the resources to defend a lawsuit.