The reputational threat of ex-employees

Barnaby Fry

The Meghan and Harry interview: how do you deal with a problem like disgruntled ex-employees?

Meghan and Harry’s interview with Oprah shows us, yet again, the very real threat to reputation that ‘ex-employees’ can present.

Of course, in the case of Meghan and Harry, it is deeply uncomfortable that this is a family affair and is driven by the context of their very public fights with the tabloids. That the business in question is the Royal ‘firm’ means the media interest is on a greater scale than many corporates would experience, but the reputational threat is one faced by organisations time and time again.

If Megan and Harry are the disgruntled ex-employees, experience tells us that, like many disgruntled ex-employees before them, they are powerfully using the media to present their version of events, their view of the firm’s culture and how they think it should be run.

The research shows their treatment has hugely polarised opinion, largely by age, on how they were treated and what should happen next. MHP’s report on communicating in the polarised world can help corporates understand this threat and how to navigate it. But how do you defend against multiple, often vague, perhaps unfounded allegations that cut to the very core of everything you thought your organisation stood for?

In our experience, these threats to reputation contain pages of allegations and like the Oprah interview, often on numerous and very disparate topics. From culture, discrimination and staff conduct, to operational failures and customer detriment, they all have the power to damage your licence to operate.

They will also always contain factual inaccuracies or misunderstanding, that more often than not will be built on a perceived truth.

Broadly there are two options based on the level of threat:

One option is to try and take control by internalising the issue. This is the approach the palace has taken. Acknowledge the issues, particularly the most damaging of racism, show empathy through the use of names not titles, make a commitment to act, but clearly state this is to be dealt with by the family and in private. This can be backed up by background briefing of stakeholders where required, as we are now seeing from the Palace. We suspect this won’t be enough in this situation, but for the Royal family the second option of greater transparency was not the best option.

Transparency involves rapid and detailed examination of each allegation. Once the truth is established, each allegation should be addressed openly with the media and other stakeholders. Robust defence, supported by strong proof points, should be used and factual inaccuracies clearly addressed and mitigated. This transparency should include clear and definitive commitment to act where action is required. You should also expect those scrutinising your business to seek further reassurance and celebrate their success in getting you to sit up and take action. This may feel like the more painful and public approach, but our experience also tells us that this can often be the most effective way to mitigate reputational damage and disarm your detractors in the shortest possible time.

Of course, you cannot please all of your employees all of the time, but you really must consider whether you are doing right by your employees and make sure you listen and act when they have something to say. Whatever you do, you cannot ignore the potential reputational impact of the next disgruntled employee that ups and leaves your organisation.