‘We’re live tweeting from the HR firing session!’

HMV in U.K. learns hard way about power of social media
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/22/2013

It’s a story of loss and betrayal, of desperation and heartache. It’s also a story about how employers should be handling their social media platforms.

Late last month, HMV in the United Kingdom was in the midst of downsizing and had apparently gathered 50 employees together for a mass layoff. However, one of those 50 — Poppy Rose — was in charge of the company’s Twitter account and she proceeded to tweet several remarks: “We’re live tweeting from the HR firing session, this is so exciting!” “We’ve all been fired, in a group, of 50+ people! And those who ruined the business are safe... hooray!”

Rose later went on to explain through tweets that she wanted to enlighten people.

“Since my internship started, I worked tirelessly to educate the business of the importance of social media — not as a short-term commercial tool, but as a tool to build and strengthen the customer relationship, and to gain invaluable real-time feedback from the consumers that have kept us going for over 91 years. While many colleagues understood and supported this, it was the more senior members of staff who never seemed to grasp its importance. I hoped that today’s actions would finally show them the true power and importance of social media.”

HMV eventually had someone take over the feed, saying: “There have been job losses today, but not in our stores. We are still open for business...” and “One of our departing colleagues was understandably upset. We’re still here thou, thx for supporting hmv thro these challenging times.”

It’s difficult to point fingers at HMV when it’s dealing with a financial crisis, but obviously not enough people had their eye on the ball, said Bonni Titgemeyer, managing director of HR consulting firm the Employers’ Choice in Brampton, Ont.

“This is going to happen, probably weekly for awhile, until employers start to understand what kinds of measures and... the policies and practices and discussions they need to have in place, such that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “They did not do a proper risk assessment; they didn’t incorporate that kind of planning into their termination plans, which is something now — especially for those positions that have access — that’s so important.”

HMV made the mistake of putting the entire administration and ownership of its social media in the hands of one person, said Kendra Reddy, executive director and coach at Blueprint Strategies in Toronto, a career management services firm.

“I’m guessing that they really trusted her and so they just let her have it and they gave up a little too much control.”

HMV also didn’t make social media part of its crisis communication, said Reddy, and companies really need to stop isolating or segregating social media and treat it as part of their communication and employment brand.

“There is a lot that goes into the planning of, ‘How are we going to manage this (layoff)? How are we going to manage this message?’ and they did not even think about social media. So here’s where they look dumb, they fired the girl who’s in charge of the social media,” she said. “They just totally had a complete blind spot when it came to social media.”

Lessons for HR

Social media has to be taken seriously, said James Clift, founder and CEO of Karma Hire, a recruitment services firm in Vancouver.

“You can’t really give it lip service anymore,” he said. “You’re going to make the right investment and not just hand it off to an intern or whomever without having the right training and procedures in place.”

But there are challenges for HR, he said.

“Now that communication has changed from kind of a top-down approach to a collaborative approach, there’s definitely a lot of things to think about in terms of doing the right education to employees and building the right channels to make sure that this education is well-positioned and adds a lot of value.”

And as more accounts are set up, they become more difficult to manage, said Clift, so employers can either have an external company handle them or stay on top of those who have access to the accounts and have an administrator oversee the different channels.

When it comes to terminations, it’s also a good idea to sit down with executives to discuss who has passwords to Twitter or Facebook accounts, said Susie Parker, owner of Sparker Strategy Group in Winnipeg, a social media marketing and public relations firm.

“When it comes to protocols, if you do know that there are going to be firings or layoffs happening, that becomes an HR issue obviously and, in this day and age, a marketing issue,” she said. “Your company or your brand needs to be aware of who has access to that account... so they need to give levels of responsibility to only certain people that have proven themselves worthy.”

Employers need to pick the right employee and team to manage the social media strategy and plan, said Parker.

“To hand over the keys essentially of your business, for better or for worse, to an intern that is unpaid, has no ties, nor loyalty, nor obligation to your company is a huge leap of faith — some might say it’s potential suicide, as you can see.”

While it was wise for HMV to inform employees about its financial considerations, it’s also important to remind workers about the policies they agreed to when they were hired, she said.

“Mistakes are going to happen, but how do you mitigate those risks? So how do you put in place policies and procedures that will keep people from tweeting from their regular personal accounts on your corporate accounts?”

While laws in the U.K. could be very different, employees should know about the consequences of such actions, said Titgemeyer, adding HMV could have lost money because of this incident.

“(It’s about) starting from the beginning of the employment relationship, making it clear that if people do stuff like that, it’s not just a matter of termination, there are other types of actions that an employer will take,” she said. “A good confidentiality policy, at least in Canada, makes sure that certain types of information have to remain confidential during and after employment, and it’s actionable if that confidentiality is breached and liability is created.”

But social media tools such as Twitter are unlike other channels in that there aren’t several levels of approval before messages are sent, said Titgemeyer.

“We empower people to do the right thing and keep a certain type of vibe that could be described as a more youthful type of vibe, and with that comes the risk that people will screw up. And if you want to be out there and as fast as you need to be in social media, I don’t think that you can get away from ensuring that everybody who’s touching that Twitter account or Facebook account is someone with a great deal of experience — it’s not feasible, it’s not practical and you will not achieve what you’re trying to achieve by trying to constrain it too much.”

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