When your company is faced with a scandal involving employee misconduct and decides to fire that employee, what should you say? To people in the inner circle? To the public? Is it better to keep your mouth shut and ride out the crisis, or be transparent, no matter what backlash you receive? Deciding the right course of action can be a difficult decision.
Back in late 2015, several members of senior management of the Episcopal Church were put on administrative leave pending an official investigation into misconduct.1 Several months later, two of these officials were fired, and one was removed from her position. As justification to the public, all that was provided was that the terminated managers had “violated established workplace policies” and “failed to live up to the Church’s standards of personal conduct in their relationships with employees.” And then there was radio silence from the Episcopal Church. No further details released. No statement to members. No statement to the press.
The Church’s silence did not go unnoticed. An article in Religion Today,2 released shortly after the announcement, contained several opinions critical of the Church’s decision to essentially “keep its mouth shut.” As the article noted, “By saying nothing about what types of violations occurred, the church heightens the risk that wrongful behavior will be repeated elsewhere as” the former employees “move on.”3 Despite predictions that the Church would surely be forced to say more, since the announcement there has been practically no further press on the issue and no public outcry for more information. Despite the critical opinions on the decision to keep the issue somewhat private, the Church has not received the backlash that may often come from a “less is more” strategy to crisis management.
While it may have worked in this situation, every crisis brings its own considerations of whether to use the “less is more” strategy. Saying too much can have legal implications, while not saying enough can be a public relations nightmare. Saying too much of the wrong thing can also be a PR problem, of course. While most experts do not advocate for a strict “no comment” strategy, there are divergent opinions on how much and what to say during or after a crisis situation. In reality, how much to say depends on a variety of factors. Consider some of these questions in analyzing the best course of action in a particular situation.
What kind of crisis do you have on your hands?
First and foremost, it is important to look critically at whether the incident is major or minor. A single incident of employee misconduct in a small organization is unlikely to garner national attention. Pulling out a full-scale crisis communication plan for a minor incident is likely overkill, and could potentially draw more negative publicity than necessary. But if the crisis is likely to make national news or become a subject of gossip in your industry, consider preparing a short statement—much like what was done in the Episcopal Church case. If press coverage is likely to be significant, an in-depth communication plan may be called for.
Is the incident likely to “blow over” quickly, or will failure to get ahead of the crisis further escalate the situation?
While it is impossible to predict with certainty how an internal scandal will be received by the public, consider this question. Remaining silent in the face of an organizational crisis may cause the incident to blow over quickly. This appears to be what happened in the recent Episcopal Church scandal. But whether such a strategy will be effective depends on how much of the information can be kept under wraps, in addition to the nature of the employee misconduct. For example, if victims’ advocates group are involved, a dismissal may not blow over quickly and failure to get ahead of such a crisis may create more problems.
Is it more important to warn others about the misconduct, or to avoid a defamation lawsuit for saying too much?
Sometimes, a crisis will not be important in the court of public opinion, but an organization still faces the question of how much to say after a resolution has been reached. This often comes up in employee discipline for misconduct. Employers may feel the obligation to warn others about this employee’s risk. But doing so may carry the very real risk that the ex-employee will file a defamation lawsuit, claiming the employer is lying about the misconduct, and has caused the employee damages by discussing it. There are several defenses to a defamation claim, and organizations in this situation should consider whether they may have immunity or a defense. The organization must also consider how strongly it feels about the moral position of warning others—and how public that warning has to be.
How certain are you of the facts?
One of the defenses to a defamation lawsuit is truth. If the particular situation is one where the facts are blatant and undisputed, publicity is less risky. In cases where the facts are disputed, or there are factors that create possible credibility problems, such as social contamination or memory issues, you may want to be much more cautious.
Will sharing more information about the misconduct appropriately encourage or discourage others from coming forward?
Consider the effect of statements on whistleblowers or former and future victims. In some situations, sharing more information about what happened will encourage others in a similar situation to come forward and share their story. This can be advantageous. In other cases, sharing too much can expose the privacy of reporting victims and cause further damage to them. Even if names are not shared, discussing overly personal details may cause further humiliation. Being discerning about this factor is important, especially in sensitive situations like child sexual abuse.
Is the incident likely to land the organization in a lawsuit?
Before making any public statements, organizations must consider how the statements might look to a jury deciding whether the organization should be liable for what happened. If legal action from the incident is a possibility, it is important to consult legal counsel on communications with the public. Because it is not always apparent whether an incident will lead to a legal claim, consulting with a lawyer while crafting a communications strategy is a good practice.
1 G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Experts push Episcopal Church to explain firings (Apr. 13, 2016), available at: http://religionnews.com/2016/04/13/critics-say-episcopal-church-needs-to-say-more-about-reasons-for-firings-184532/.
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