It is possible for companies to avoid the all-too-common employee-fueled social media crisis.

I watched in horror as another company was skewered into a social media crisis in the wee hours last night and I fumed, mostly at the offending person’s behavior, but also at the fact that these types of incidents continue to happen and companies seem completely oblivious to their power and responsibility in reducing these types of incidents.

Franklin Templeton, a global investment firm, was forced to publicly apologize on Memorial Day for the behavior of a senior executive and to notify the outraged Twitterverse that the employee had been placed on administrative leave. This morning the company announced that she had been terminated.

The incident forced the company into the hellish viral social spotlight in a way that very few businesses appreciate. The incident clocked 14,700 Retweets and 49,200 Likes on one post by the end of the evening, with over 21,000 people talking about it, including those in the U.K. that saw it trending. Social media influencers had thousands of additional likes and retweets to their comments and posts, likely boosting the visibility of this issue to over a million views.

Yikes! Yes retweets, likes, and trending posts are good, but only if the company is portrayed in a positive light.

Now, while the woman’s behavior was hideous (she basically went on a racist tirade, choked her dog, and made a false police report on public property—all while being obviously video recorded), I am not here to argue that she or anyone can have racism, entitlement, and criminal tendencies trained out of them by corporate America. If she is a bad person, then I am not sure that there is much her employer or Twitter can do about that. She lost her job and the respect of thousands of people, so she has paid a price (something we could debate endlessly as we live in a new cancel culture world.)

The damages this company has suffered (and note, it has only been one day) in lost hours, negative publicity, reputation damages, and possibly in sales and revenues, has not yet been calculated, but I assure you, the damages are real and they are spectacular. All of the recent searches shows the incident near the top of both general and news searches and this will likely overshadow any company news or announcements for the coming weeks or months.

The blame for this shameful display of inhumanity belongs to that poor, sad woman who really does need some help (of course, there are those who place blame on the participant, again, something we could argue endlessly), but I also blame a tiny portion of this situation on Franklin Templeton for not effectively training their leaders on a variety of modern communications issues, strategies, practices, and topics.

As a crisis communications expert, I believe that her employer has both the right and the responsibility to train each and every one of their staff members: every employee, at every level, of every organization needs to be trained on social media usage, related company policies, and expected public conduct. No, you cannot train the hatefulness out of people, but everyone should understand clearly and definitively that if they blow up the internet on their personal time with their inappropriate activities, it may violate company policy and come with severe consequences.

If companies are not instituting ethical-conduct-type policies, in the same way they are enforcing other employment and safety policies, then they are simply asking for a social media crisis to occur, because it is not if this will happen to a company, it is when will this happen to a company.

The reason so many of these social media disasters happen is because many professionals, especially senior executives in more traditional industries, still do not use or fully grasp social media and continue to fail to understand how swiftly it can impact the masses and tarnish multiple reputations, including the employer. For some reason being recorded in public only happens to other people and no one prepares for the time (and it’s coming) when someone records them. Employees need to understand that poor public behavior that reflects negatively on their employer will become public, is likely becoming public as it happens, and that it will warrant disciplinary action. Everyone needs situational training with a goal of understanding of how they might deescalate situations that occur in public or while being filmed—during work or during personal time—since everyone has a camera now. Companies have long enforced codes of conduct and the like, but the missing piece seems to be that some people do not understand how this plays out in our always-on digital world. These policies and trainings must be updated with a digital world view.

While most bosses are busy being bossy and are worried about social media as a distraction for employees, few are having the difficult conversations around appropriate social media behavior and few companies have taken the time to develop proper crisis communications plans. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I live in a world that generally lacks communication preparedness and I understand why there is a lack of social media training, however, adding this to the company policy portfolio would reduce the number of online incidents.

Corporate social media policies need to include:

  1. Brand Expectations
  2. Employee Responsibilities
  3. Desired Media activities
  4. Expectations of Executives
  5. Examples of Various Scenarios

In addition to a documented process and the resulting policies, people need training—real-life human training. It is not enough to simply state the desired behavior in writing and to warn of dire consequences. People, being the thoughtful, sensitive humans that they are, need context and practice and a space to be uncomfortable for learning new crises management techniques. We have seen over and over again that people fail in categories such as sensitivity training, workplace conflict management, and sexual harassment. We’ve had that training for years and we still have a MeToo problem. Simply stating the laws or company expectations will not suffice. Repeated, individualized training in small groups is required to ensure that a workplace and its humans are aware enough to proactively avoid igniting a social media crisis.

Leaders from every department need training on managing conflicts within their team, assisting with third-party conflicts among staff members, as well as person conflict resolution skills. We no longer live in a world where employers can have emotionally-unintelligent staffers running amok. We know that when there is a leadership priority on improving emotional intelligence and conflict management skills, employee job satisfaction, productivity, and overall company performance increase.

Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as the ability to manage not only your own emotions, but also the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence at work means three separate skills:

  • Identifying and naming emotions
  • Applying emotions to problem solving when necessary
  • Regulating your own emotions and knowing when to help regulate the emotions of others

Employees that have the benefit of increased emotional intelligence, with an additional focus on applying these skills in a digital world, will be less likely to become the fuel that ignites a corporate social media dumpster fire. We are all stressed to the max right now with the pandemic stretching on endlessly and a divisive political battle raging as we get closer to the presidential elections, nerves are only going to get more fried. Now is the time to begin the difficult conversations and to use company resources to avoid a damaging, unconstrained employee-fueled social media crisis.