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When an Employee Threatens your Company’s Reputation

By David Ball for O’Dwyer’s

As business culture changes as a result of both the pandemic and generational shifts, employees can easily act in ways that, while acceptable some years back, are wholly unacceptable today. When that happens, the C-suite must act quickly to prevent reputational damage.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote of the firing of a top Apple executive, one who had accomplished enormous things for the company that contributed directly to the company’s bottom line. That executive was approached by a social media influencer as he drove up to a car show, off the clock, at which point the executive paraphrased a line from the movie “Arthur,” released more than 40 years ago—before many current customers and employees were born—and added an inappropriate reference to women’s bodies.

The remark was clearly spur-of-the moment and silly. Had there been no one filming the comment for social media, maybe there would’ve been some yucks and maybe it would’ve been forgotten almost as soon as it was uttered. Instead, the video was posted to TikTok, where it was eventually seen by millions.

Apple demanded the executive’s resignation, and when he refused, the executive was fired. “It was 22 years dissolved in about 25 seconds,” the executive said.

Was Apple right to remove that loyal executive who spent decades helping the company become more successful, over a brief, lewd throwaway line? Yes.

We live in an age where information travels at the speed of light. In a single post, social media can make or break a person. It’s okay to lament this situation, but communicators must absolutely own it.

More to the point: Workplaces are more diverse than they’ve ever been, though still not diverse enough. It’s imperative for CEOs to create a welcoming environment that’s free of hostility. Women and people of color have historically faced immense challenges in advancement, in large part because the workplace environment has been filled with demeaning comments and dumb attempts at humor, just like that offered up by the Apple executive, as well as overt racism and sexism.

Brands aren’t simply a logo and tagline or a product or service. Brands are also the people working behind them. So, when a brand offends—either with intent or without—the best way to manage the situation can be pulled from the Crisis Management 101 handbook: Admit you’re wrong, apologize, fix the problem and move on. Doing so will eliminate protracted battles—and negative news coverage—that can weaken brands over time.

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