How to protect your organization’s reputation from employee misconduct

When planning for potential crises in the past, most organizations didn’t imagine inappropriate employee behavior would top the list. Times have changed.

As we’ve seen with the Hollywood scandals, Oxfam and others, when the actions of employees strike at the heart of what an organization stands for, it can cause serious reputational harm. The damage can be equally significant when senior executives abuse their power and position, as demonstrated by the Presidents Club dinner.

From a reputational perspective, it is important that organizations create a crisis-resistant culture that flows through the business. They should take steps to plan for major reputational threats that may strike at their core values, so in the event, they will have the confidence and ability to reduce the reputational damage through what they say and do.

Creating a crisis-resistant culture

A crisis-resistant culture can enable an organization to prevent a crisis in the first place, or at least snuff it out before it escalates. Oxfam’s recent troubles have shown what happens to an organization that lacks these safeguards.

While the executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, can be commended for the compassion and sincerity she displayed in media interviews, it took over a week for any of these messages to reach public ears. By that time, several celebrity ambassadors including actress Minnie Driver and Archbishop Desmond Tutu had severed ties with the charity, the British government was considering cutting all its funding, and the international media had taken firm control of the story.

Oxfam’s problems were further compounded when its CEO, Mark Goldring, accused critics of “gunning” for the charity and said: “The intensity and ferocity of the attack makes you wonder, what did we do? We murdered babies in their cots? Anything we say is being manipulated…even apologies only make matters worse.”

The cardinal rule of communicating during a crisis is to avoid focusing inwardly. The crisis is not about you; it’s about the people that have been affected by it. Your crisis is guaranteed to escalate if you don’t demonstrate empathy in your communications.

Here are three key elements of a crisis-resistant culture:

  1. Structure: Beware of “over-centralization” and a strict hierarchy. Ensure that senior management is willing to listen to a range of stakeholders and experts.
  2. Attitudes: Do people feel comfortable sending bad news to the top? Employees of all levels need to feel confident that any bad news they share with decision-makers won’t be shot down or disregarded.
  3. Values: Are you living and breathing your core values as an organization? If “safety” and “integrity” are front and center on your slogan, do you live up to these in every situation?

How to prepare for crisis

The most effective protection against a major reputational incident is to plan for the worst-case scenarios, however apocalyptic they might seem. By identifying the potential pain points are, you can prepare and plan your response more effectively.

It is also important to train, rehearse and test the people who will handle these different scenarios. Exercising these teams by running mock scenarios they might face will give them the most realistic dress rehearsal for the real thing. It will also build their confidence to do and say the right thing and make better decisions under pressure.

In a crisis your senior management team will be the public face of the organization and must make big calls which will determine whether your reputation is preserved or destroyed. Having the confidence and the capability to do and say the right thing during periods of extreme pressure means that their participation in crisis training is essential.

How to reduce reputational damage if crisis strikes

The Presidents Club scandal taught us that crises can spread. Business leaders involved in the infamous dinner found themselves defending not on their own conduct at the event, but consequently the conduct and reputation of the organizations they represent.

Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, which had a table at the event, issued a detailed apology for the “deep concern and offence” caused. Residential Land lost one of its major investors, Ivanhoe Cambridge, due to the “events and behaviours as reported by the media.” Ocado was subjected to a social media storm as customers tweeted that they would no longer shop with the online grocer following CEO Tim Steiner’s attendance at the event.

If you want to influence the crisis narrative, your communication to the outside world should be proactive and speedy. If not, the vacuum that you’ve left will be filled by other commentators, and they might not speak so highly of your organization. Responding quickly and with confidence also demonstrates that you are in control and taking appropriate action to address the situation.

Inappropriate behaviour within organizations has been at the forefront of the media agenda in recent weeks. Many organizations rightly focus on cyber-attacks, terrorism and fraud as areas to protect themselves against, but recent scandals show that inappropriate behaviour can be just as damaging to reputation, yet harder to manage.

Organizations that plan and train their staff for every eventuality will find themselves in a better position to cope with a crisis and have a better chance of keeping their reputation intact.

Jonathan Hemus is the managing director of Insignia, a specialist crisis management consultancy.

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