By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications
As we have seen countless times during these COVID-stricken months, employees are working on a short fuse. Isolation, stress and a galvanized political landscape have combined to create an environment where casual comments on social media explode into wars of words, workplace rules spawn walkouts, and long-simmering resentments about past management practices have suddenly morphed into legal action. As if overnight, the same individuals an organization depends on for its future existence have become lethal threats to its very survival.
At the root of many of these situations that seem to emerge out of nowhere is an organizational policy – a description of guidelines and rules, typically overseen by Human Resources, telling employees how to behave on the job and often, how to behave off the job as well. When policies are well-written, they help create a workplace where expectations for employee performance are standardized and consequences for flouting those standards are clear-cut. But even the best written policies are ineffective if they are not consistently enforced and employees are unaware of their existence. Even worse is the policy that is never enacted for a critical component of employee performance.
Grocery giant Whole Foods is perhaps the latest high-profile example of what happens when policies are left adrift. In July, the company learned it would be facing a class-action suit brought by 14 employees in four states who claimed they were punished for wearing Black Lives Matter masks, clothing and pins on the job, but not for wearing all manner of other “creative clothing” that violated the company’s dress code. Employees alleged Whole Foods failed to enforce its dress code until they began to wear items with the BLM message; the company countered by saying the employees were disciplined for other infractions including not working assigned shifts. Claims have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Enforcement of face mask policies is currently a flashpoint for many employers – especially those in the retail space – but they are not the only policy causing reputational and operational problems for organizations. In recent months, we have seen a significant uptick in the number of organizations whose past and current employees are leveling charges of harassment, hostile work environments and discrimination against management and even boards of trustees and directors. Some of these cases have garnered front-page headlines and resulted in leadership departures, board realignments and outside investigations to get to the bottom of what appears, from the outside, to be failures to set clear policies and enforce them.
For a glimpse at one of one of the more complicated examples involving apparent disregard for corporate policies of several types, consider the latest chapter in the case of McDonald’s Corporation. Former CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was dismissed last fall amid allegations of misconduct, has resurfaced as part of a new investigation involving allegations that he lied to the board about the issues that led to his departure. The new investigation also involves complaints from employees about various HR-related matters, including the company’s decision to revise performance reviews that limited opportunities for staff to voice concerns about workplace issues.
Having thought-out policies in place, making sure employees are aware of them and enforcing them without exception are some of the most powerful weapons an organization can have if or when disputes with employees threaten to become high-profile reputation risks. In our experience, clients who can say they have a clear-cut policy in place for certain issues – and that it is rigorously and evenly enforced – have strong ground on which to stand in the Court of Public Opinion. Reaching that goal, however, takes solid, sustained work. Here are some suggestions for making sound policy management part of your crisis prevention program.
Have them. No organization of any size should assume that employees will know the rules of conduct if they are not spelled out in writing. Be sure to address the issues that most commonly create friction points and liabilities in the workplace: discrimination of all types, harassment in all forms and behavior leading to a hostile work environment are the foundational policies all organizations should have. Two more we always recommend: a media policy that clearly identifies who is authorized to speak to reporters on behalf of the organization and a social media policy that clearly states what an employee can and cannot do on the company’s sites, as well as expectations for personal social media activities that might reflect poorly on one’s employer.
Clarify expectations and consequences. It is difficult to enforce policies that are vaguely written without specifics. Be very clear about acceptable behavior and even clearer about the consequences for unacceptable behavior. Make sure employees understand what will happen if they do or don’t do something spelled out in a policy.
Provide a way to report concerns. Policies should clearly spell out a process that allows employees to voice concerns if they feel policies are being violated or going unenforced. It should assure confidentiality and be free of repercussions for coming forward. There also should be clear guidelines for what happens internally with complaints or concerns submitted by employees. How are records maintained? When are complaints shared with the CEO or leadership team? Of course, all draft policies should be reviewed by legal counsel to make sure they comply with applicable employment laws.
Once in place, rigorously and uniformly enforce them. By far, the most common way we see organizations get in trouble with policies is through selective enforcement. Once one employee is widely known to have violated a policy without consequences, other employees have a pretty strong case to do the same. Under those circumstances, a policy becomes largely useless and essentially unenforceable.
Make sure all employees are aware of them. Employees who justifiably claim to be unaware of a given policy can strongly argue that the policy does not apply to them. A good way to make sure every employee is aware of polices is to make them part of the new hire on-boarding process. Requiring signatures to affirm that the employee has read and understands the policies provided is a good idea. When new policies are issued, make sure all employees read them and acknowledge receiving them. Updates to the employee handbook are another opportunity to confirm that everyone understands the policies in it.
Review them regularly. The current confrontations organizations are dealing with regarding face masks are a good example of how the workplace evolves and how policies need to evolve with it. A few years ago, the same could be said for policies governing the use of social media. Having solid policies in place will never eliminate bad behavior and bad judgement in the workplace, but it will certainly strengthen an organization’s ability to respond to those problems more effectively. Even better, it will create a more positive work environment for everyone and help provide the roadmap to success every organization needs.
Hennes Communications is one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and crisis communications, assisting clients that find themselves on trial in the Court of Public Opinion. The information above is not intended to serve as legal advice. For legal advice, please consult your attorney.