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Bad news for Chipotle last week, as a judge ruled it was at fault for firing an employee who tweeted a negative comment about working there.
But while the fajita-flogger might not be happy about the situation, I think brands could certainly learn a few things at the expense of Chipotle’s misery.
What actually happened?
In January last year somebody tweeted their thanks to Chipotle for offering free food, but one staff member felt obliged to make a snarky comment in response.
James Kennedy tweeted:
@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members make only $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?
Somebody showed Kennedy the company’s social media policy, which states that an employee cannot make ‘disparaging, false’ statements about Chipotle publicly, so (begrudgingly, I assume) he deleted the tweet.
Two weeks later, Kennedy started a petition about employees being allowed to take breaks during their shift, and he was promptly dismissed.
But a Pennsylvania judge recently ruled that Kennedy was unfairly treated, and that Chipotle’s social media policy violated US labor laws.
Chipotle now has to display signs acknowledging the illegality of some of its employee policies – particularly the social media rules – and it is also required to offer Kennedy his job back and reimburse him for any lost wages.
Obviously Chipotle hasn’t come out of this one too well, but let’s consider what other brands could learn from its mistakes…
You can’t control everything
Some companies have this huge fear of social media, as if everything needs to be tightly controlled and one negative tweet could bring the brand crashing down.
This is nonsense. Employees saying something negative about your company on twitter is the modern-day equivalent of them shouting about it in the pub after work for all to hear.
Yes, the potential audience reach is larger, but the principle is the same: you simply cannot stop people saying bad things about your company. They are individuals and they will express themselves if they feel like it.
You could try and police absolutely everything, as Chipotle did. But in the end you’ll likely end up looking like the bad guy while the majority of your employees, and indeed the general public, rally around whoever it is you’re reprimanding.
Brands should relax, take a step back, and accept that the only effective way to control what is being said about your business on social media is to give people fewer things to complain about.
Use social media to learn what your employees really think
Plenty of digitally savvy brands are familiar with using social media to listen to their target audience and find out what they’re really talking about, their likes and dislikes in real time, so why not use the same approach for employees?
By assessing what staff members are saying on social media, you can quickly spot where things are going wrong and people are unhappy.
But on the other side of it you can see where employees are expressing positive sentiment about your brand, and that kind of information is equally important in order to know not only which staff members are happy and engaged, but why that's the case, so you can replicate it elsewhere in the business.
Social media is a fantastic tool for sentiment analysis, much more agile and effective than any methods available five-to-ten years ago. Yes, you are going to read some things you don’t want to hear, but at least you’ll be aware of it and able to take action.
If people complain, work with them, not against them
Here’s a wild suggestion: your employees are complaining about a serious issue on social media, but instead of punishing them you actually contact them to find out why exactly they feel like that.
Crazy, I know. The trouble is, a lot of companies have an attitude along the lines of ‘if you don’t like it, leave’. Which is fine, if you simply want to bury your head in the sand and put all the blame on the disgruntled employee.
But if people are complaining about something serious and specific, you’ll get more long-term benefit from communicating with that person than simply firing them.
Take the Chipotle example. Kennedy was voicing the opinion of many employees as the company. He just happened to be the one brave enough to say it.
If Chipotle had contacted Kennedy to find out why he was so aggrieved then it would no doubt have heard some hard truths, but at least it would have been aware of how unhappy its employees were and could have avoided the subsequent PR disaster.
Don’t force positivity, encourage it to come naturally
The key thing to take away from all this is that, rather than trying to stifle any negative comments from employees on social media, you should instead aim to create a working environment in which people don’t feel the need to vent.
Easier said than done, sure. But there are a number of ways you can create a positive company culture through social media.
L'Oréal, for example, uses social media to make it a more attractive employer, but also to boost employee engagement. And it has had a huge amount of success in those areas.
This really comes back to the point about control above. You can’t force employees to only say lovely things about your business online. If they have a genuine grievance and you do try to censor them, you can imagine the negative impact that will have on their morale.
Chiptotle, for example, expected nobody to say anything bad about its working conditions when they were so bad they actually broke several employment laws. Tough as it might be for brands to swallow, that is not reasonable behaviour.
What is reasonable behaviour is actually trying to create a working environment about which employees won’t feel the need to make negative comments about online.
Again, crazy idea, I know.
If you want to learn more managing your brand’s reputation online, check out our social media and online PR training course.