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Should CEOs Respond When Employees Complain About Them Online?

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Last month, a Tesla employee criticized the company in a Medium post, spurring a public exchange between the employee and Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO.

In November, an IBM employee resigned by posting an open letter to CEO Ginni Rometty, in response to an open letter that Rometti had written to President Donald Trump.

Many leaders expect to be challenged by employees in the privacy of their offices, but there are greater risks when it happens online, in public. Others may pile on, a CEO’s response may be taken out of context, and comments may live on in perpetuity.

A CEO’s personal reputation, which is one of a company’s most valuable assets, may be at stake.

Employee critics can be far more damaging than outside commentators, due to their insider’s perspective, access to sensitive information, and greater degree of credibility.

Social media has become an important employee communications tool that leaders should embrace. Employees are more likely to view socially active CEOs as good communicators and listeners, as open and accessible, and as more inspiring. But it’s important to know how to handle criticism, should it occur. Taking a few steps can help CEOs prepare for constructive exchanges with employees online.

Foster internal dialogue

Employees want to have a dialogue with their CEOs, but only 17% of the employees we surveyed globally rated communication from and with their chief executives highly. To better engage with their workforces, leaders need to find ways to hear people’s concerns. CEO roadshows to locations around the world, offices hours, intranet forums, and even informal conversations (like Google’s “TGIF” chats in the cafeteria) help staff feel heard, help leaders keep a pulse on sentiment, and can foster online loyalty among employees down the road.

Typical employee concerns include things such as layoffs, outsourcing, reduced benefits, and so on. These create the perception that CEOs sacrifice employees’ well-being for profit or personal benefit. Effective CEOs need to be aware of these pain points and meet regularly with employees to explain, course correct, or defend.

If the conversations don’t happen internally, they will eventually surface externally, at a higher cost.

Listen externally. Social media tracking is a more than $2 billion industry, offering products that monitor everything from when an employee posts something to how many views it gets and whether it’s picked up by traditional media. Investing in the right technology can help companies track how they’re being portrayed online and find the posts that demand attention.

Reach and context are important data points to monitor. For example, one company escalates any critical posts from employees with Twitter followings of more than 10,000. The day’s news cycle and trending online conversations can also carry an employee post from obscurity to prominence. Companies should set objective indicators of risk that can help them decide whether to respond to criticism. They should also plan the steps they will take in different scenarios.

Only respond to criticism when necessary. Responding to all employee criticism isn’t feasible or advisable. Determining whether, when, and how to respond requires judgment and sensitivity to the nuances of the situation. CEOs should partner with communications, HR, and legal to assess the following:

  • Who is the employee? What is their standing with the company? What might be their objectives in posting, and what are they looking for in a response? An employee who speaks out after being overlooked for promotion may not be receptive to a constructive exchange. On the other hand, an employee in good standing who uses social media to raise genuine concerns about a new corporate policy may offer the CEO a chance to clarify and bring the employee onboard.
  • Is a CEO response likely to draw even more attention to the issue? Getting more attention is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important to consider. When a Yelp employee complained about the cost of living in the Bay Area and asked the CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman, for a raise in a post on Medium, she was terminated within a matter of hours. This action, and Stoppelman’s Twitter response, amplified the coverage. The employee’s post has been recommended 3,400 times and has received nearly 1,400 comments, and the story was picked up by outlets including Forbes, Fortune, and Business Insider. It ignited a global conversation on the minimum wage, corporate social media policies, and freedom of speech. While the CEO’s response likely drew more attention to the original post, not responding might have sent the wrong message. Instead, Stoppelman added to the conversation by expressing sympathy, sharing his efforts to support affordable housing, and outlining the company’s efforts to create jobs in markets with lower costs of living. When CEOs do respond, their replies should be straightforward and timely to avoid providing more fodder for criticism.
  • Is the employee’s claim factually accurate? If not, should the CEO correct it? What is the risk of letting the misinformation go uncorrected? Untrue statements on the internet can do significant reputational damage. When a Reddit employee opened an “Ask Me Anything” thread by falsely reporting that he had been laid off for no reason, the CEO responded personally, clarifying that the employee had been fired, not laid off, and cited the specific reasons for his termination. Recognizing that such a claim would spark widespread unease across the employee base, the CEO chose to nip it in the bud. But if the falsehood has not been widely viewed, doesn’t adversely impact the company’s reputation, or is clearly ludicrous in nature, many companies will choose not to reply.
  • What platform was the post on? Does it offer built-in protections to keep dialogue constructive? Some social media channels are lower risk than others. Official employer review sites like Glassdoor are guided by community rules and are rigorously monitored. The site limits exchanges to one review from an employee and a single response from a CEO or company, thereby preventing unproductive back-and-forth. CEOs are active on Facebook (56%), Twitter (36%), and LinkedIn (27%), among other sites. These sites allow criticism of CEOs and other public figures, but prohibit threats, harassment, and hate speech directed at them. They also offer direct messaging, which CEOs can use to respond to employees privately rather than publicly. CEOs may not wish to respond to complaints on personal blogs or industry chatrooms, where there is limited monitoring.

If the decision is to reply to employee criticism, CEOs should remember that a response over social media is not just a response to the critical employee — it’s a message to everyone who comes across it, including potential shareholders, customers, and employees.

As a general rule, simplicity and humility go a long way. The tried-and-true formula — thanking employees for feedback, acknowledging their frustration, and laying out measures to address the situation — is illustrated in this open letter from Danny McKinney, CEO of Satellites Unlimited. This method is frequently deployed by CEOs across social channels.

Interacting with employees online shouldn’t be viewed as a threat so much as an opportunity. When online conversations are positive, they can make CEOs visible, accessible, and likable. When not-so-positive, they can provide CEOs with valuable employee perspective and a chance to create shared understanding.

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