Archive for the ‘social media’ Category

Ethics, PR, and Dissing Your Customers

Here is a cautionary tale at the intersection of ethics and customer service. It’s a true story, but names and trademarks have been omitted to protect the innocent.

The story is worth relating at length, and it goes like this. A friend of mine recently emailed one of his favourite chain stores — one he patronizes regularly — to make a suggestion: would they please improve the selection of one product line at the location nearest his home?

I’m sure it’s the kind of suggestion that lots of companies get these days. After all, they’ve got websites with Contact pages featuring phone numbers and email addresses and stock photos of smiling operators waiting to take your input.

What happened next, however, is perhaps not an everyday thing. Following his friendly suggestion, my pal was accidentally cc’d on an internal email regarding his query. The gist of that employee-to-employee email was that my friend should be told to go to a different store (farther from his house, but with a broader selection of goods). There was, in addition, speculation that my friend had “too much time on his hands.”

Excuse me?

Resisting the urge to post this story on Twitter, my friend settled for sharing this story with a handful of friends on Facebook. He also forwarded the offending email the company’s CEO, and its head of Communications, and gently suggested that “if staff want to complain about customers, they probably shouldn’t CC them.”

Within just a few hours, my friend received a response. It included an apology. It also included assurance that such disrespect for customers was not consistent with the company’s customer service policy, and that the offending employee had been advised of this fact in no uncertain terms. Finally, it included a gift certificate, along with an invitation to a VIP tour of one of the chain’s stores in order to discuss its offerings with a knowledgeable member of their staff, and a promise to revisit the product offerings as per my friend’s original suggestion.

To his credit, my friend now considers the matter closed, and has asked me not to publicize the name of the company involved.

But it’s worth reflecting for a moment on just what went on here, and why. The author of the offending email was rude, to be sure — rude in a way that was supposed to be kept behind the scenes, but rude none the less. Whether such rudeness amounts to an unethical lack of respect is a question that is probably best answered in terms of frequency. We all have grumpy days; but a pattern of rudeness amounts to a display of disrespect that is inconsistent with the ethical demands of customer service. We don’t know whether the employee in question was merely having a bad day. But I’m pretty sure that the company in question came within a hair’s breadth of having a very bad day from a public relations point of view. Because, needless to say, the company involved only narrowly avoided a minor social media disaster. Had my friend decided instead just to post his experience on Twitter, the story might well have gone viral.

This reminds me of an anecdote I recently heard related by an executive at Disney, having to do with the customer-service orientation of the Disney employees responsible for picking up trash and emptying trash bins at the company’s amusement parks and resorts. The Disney executive said that, for years, those employees had been told that their job was to keep the place clean. The result: all those tourists leaving pop cans and popcorn boxes all over the place were inevitably viewed as pains in the neck, as obstacles these workers faced in trying to get the job done. The result was poor morale, and occasionally surly interactions with paying customers. At some point, someone had the bright idea of changing these employees’ mission: no longer would their mission be to “keep the place clean.” Instead, their mission would be to make customers’ experience at Disney a positive one. Sure, that would mostly consist of keeping the place clean, but that would just be a means, not an end in itself. The result, or so the story goes, was a big improvement in morale. The lesson: there’s no need to see customers as a burden if it is made clear that customers are why you’re there in the first place.

Ethics and Online Reputation Management

In a recent interview with Reputation.com, I talked about the effect the internet has had on reputation management, and the connection between that and ethics.

The risk, of course, in having an ethics professor like me talk about reputation management is that it’s all too easy to give the impression that the two topics are the same. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are people out there who assume they are the same thing.

And certainly there are those in the field of ethics who contribute to that way of thinking. Sometimes that takes the form of what is often referred to as “the business” case for ethics (or for CSR or for sustainability). “The business case” takes many forms, but all of them boil down to an assertion that acting ethically (or being socially responsible or being sustainable, whatever) is good for your business. The specific mechanisms mentioned are varied. Treating your workers well improves retention. Going green reduces energy costs. And, yes, that being ethical is good for that all-important corporation reputation.

The worry is that businesses exposed to such arguments will come to think of ethics from a purely instrumental point of view: we’ll act ethically only because, and only to the extent, that it’s good for profits. Thinking of ethics that way implies an incredibly low level of commitment. You won’t always in every situation be able to draw a straight line between this bit of ethical behaviour and that bit of profitability. And so the ethics of a company under the sway of “the business case,” it seems, would be liable to have its ethical behaviour ebb and flow on a pretty regular basis.

The key, though, isn’t to avoid talking about the business case for ethics. Because it is simply true that, on the whole, acting ethically is good for business. Sure, you can make a quick buck by being a cheat. But smart managers have known forever that the route to sustainable profits lies in paying your bills on time, treating your employees well, cleaning up your own messes, and dealing honestly with your customers. Having a reputation for doing those things is truly good for business.

Clearly, having a reputation for doing those things isn’t precisely the same thing as actually doing them. In theory, it’s possible to act badly but to keep the facts quiet. Or at least, that was the case once upon a time. Then along came consumer blogs and Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and so on; now, accusations of bad corporate behaviour has a way of getting out and spreading like wildfire. Today, certainly, it seems like the easiest way to get and keep a reputation for honesty and integrity is actually to behave with honesty and integrity. It’s always better to avoid fires than to have to put them out. That’s why the best reputation management method is to build a good reputation in the first place.

But of course, sometimes even an honest company, trying its best to treat people right, can hit a rough patch. Sometimes something goes wrong, and sometimes — in an era in which all of your customers have access to a 7 billion-person conversation called the Internet — that fact that something went wrong gets aired in a very public way. Hence the need for online reputation management, to control the damage. But even here, the key is to make your participation in those online conversations genuine, or if you prefer “authentic.” You need to be sincere about your commitment to doing the right thing, and to making things right when mistakes are made. This is the irony of the business case for ethics. The best way to reap the benefits of a reputation for being ethical is not to pay much attention to those benefits, but to focus on the importance of doing the right thing — for its own sake.

Ethics, Law, & Workplace Social Media

Yesterday as part of the Business Ethics Speakers Series I host, we held a panel discussion on “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Workplace Social Media.”* It’s a topic that a lot of organizations are thinking about these days, and it raises a lot of tricky questions. How much control should an organization try to exert over employees use of Twitter at work? When two employees kvetch about their employer on Facebook, is that a private conversation or a public one? Is it OK for an employer to gain access to a potential employee’s Facebook profile in order to engage in screening?

For the panel, I invited three of the most thoughtful people I know on the topic. All happened to be lawyers, but all come from very different perspectives and intersect with the topic in very different ways. And all of them were interested not just to talk about the legal standards that apply to social media in the workplace, but also about the ethical principles that ought to underpin such standards.

Mark Crestohl, who chaired the panel, is AVP for Global HR Regulatory Policies at TD Bank. In his comments, Mark suggested that what is most important for employers is to explain to their employees what it expects of them when they engage in social media. Mark explained that at TD, they explain to employees that they must adhere to the bank’s usage guidelines when any one or more of three situations arise: when the employee uses equipment (e.g., a corporate smartphone) provided by the employer; when they use network access provided by the employer; or when they are discussing topics related to TD or the financial services industry. 

Panelist Dan Michaluk is a Partner at Hicks Morley, Canada’s largest HR law firm. He said his advice to corporate clients is that then need to have a social media policy that is “risk-based and culture-tuned.” In other words, cookie-cutter policies just won’t do. He also said that clear internal guidelines are important, and that guidelines and policies need to be enforced consistently. But he also warns clients to think carefully before engaging on the ‘hard cases,’ the kinds of cases that test the line between private activity and activity that causes a significant risk to an employer interest.

Finally, Avner Levin is a colleague of mine at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and Director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute. For Avner, the key is to keep having a rich conversation about the issues social media raise. He pointed out that we tend to strive to behave online in ways that mimic the standards we have developed offline. But, he noted, we also seek, online, to present different aspects of our identity to different audiences — our employer, our colleagues, our family, our friends — in the same manner that we do in the real world. His plea was that we do our best to make sure that our workplace policies respect those individual needs and desires.

But that just hints at the rich discussion that went on. You can see the webcast of the event in its entirety by clicking here: Ethical and Legal Aspects of Workplace Social Media.
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*The panel was co-sponsored by the Ethics Practitioners’ Association of Canada.

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