Knowing when to draw the line

Beer can-tossing incident another warning for employers to take protective measures
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/28/2016

A beer can incident at a baseball game in Toronto, and subsequent loss of employment for Ken Pagan, serves as a stark warning to corporations seeking to defend their brand, say experts.

The now-infamous moment came during the American League wild-card game that saw the Toronto Blue Jays at home versus the Baltimore Orioles. With Orioles player Hyun Soo Kim set to catch a fly ball, a partially filled beer can came flying over the left-field wall and landed just to the outfielder’s left.

While Kim made the catch, the incident set off a social media firestorm in the city and eventually cost the alleged thrower, Pagan, his sports copy editor job at Postmedia, though details surrounding his dismissal were not publicized. Pagan was charged with mischief and due in court in late November.

Implementing proactive policies

The incident begs the question: How do organizations best protect their brands from rogue employees committing acts of mischief in public?

Get a social conduct policy in place as soon as possible, said Terry Flynn, assistant professor of communications management at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

“Organizations need to have social media policies and guidelines for expectations of conduct,” he said. “It’s the same kind of standard for when companies engage celebrities in sponsorship, that they’re held to the same kind of moral expectations.”

The organizations that have good cultures are the ones doing a really good job in alerting employees to what those expectations are, said Flynn.

“I think, more and more, HR and legal are going to say: ‘Look, we live in a fish-bowl world. Here’s our expectations, and if you act in any way publicly that is contrary to the reputation or expectations of the company, then there will be consequences.’”

The advance of social media technology has forced organizations to pen internal guidelines and moral integrity clauses in collaboration with HR, said Flynn.

“It went from not just how you should use it and represent yourself, to how you should conduct yourself while using this and being associated with the organization. This is where communications, HR and legal really have to play a significant role,” he said.

“What’s the expectation when somebody internal goes mad on social media? And what happens when we are the recipient of a social media swarming?

“On social media, most people see it as the Wild, Wild West. ‘Nobody’s going to stop me or hold me accountable. Nobody’s going to catch me.’ But we know that’s just not the case. Brands are taking this very seriously.”

Policies should cover employee conduct and behaviour at public events and corporate events, as well as on social media, said Patricia McQuillan, president of Brand Matters in Toronto.

“That is probably in many employment contracts, these days,” she said. “There are still companies catching up but in the last five to 10 years, with the advance of social media, there’s been more attention to these policies due to the lack of messaging control.”

Still, no amount of corporate policy could have prevented the knee-jerk reaction in the beer-tossing incident, said McQuillan.

“I don’t think that individual was sitting in the stands thinking about his HR policies,” she said.

“That’s probably more of a reaction behaviour as opposed to the guy going to the game planning that, whereas social media typically is more planned or controlled because you’re making the effort to post.”

Be ready, not hasty

But even with behavioural standard policies in place, legal advice should be garnered by employers before making a decision to terminate, said employment lawyer Laura Williams of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont.

“Because our own individual judgment can impair an objective assessment, you really should get legal advice,” she said.

“You can’t make a quick judgment. You really have to do an assessment of the nature and character of the employee’s employment, the nature of the misconduct, and the nature of the employer’s business activity, and really make an assessment with respect to whether or not the alleged or before-proven misconduct could cause actual harm.”

Termination isn’t necessarily the answer to all crises, said Williams.

“Employers should not hastily come to termination decisions when they learn of alleged off-duty misconduct,” she said. “There really has to be some real harm to the brand or the employer’s operations as a result of the misconduct for an employer to justify termination.”

She pointed to the case of Shawn Simoes — a Toronto soccer fan who defended a heckler’s sexual harassment of a female reporter at a 2014 game, then successfully took Hydro One to court after losing his job — as proof that termination isn’t always the right move.

Managing brand in a crisis

Postmedia’s options were limited, given Pagan’s editorial role at the company, said McQuillan.

“If something hits the news, I don’t think employers have a big choice,” she said.

 “You feel badly because he’s being centred out, however, maybe he shouldn’t be working in the industry if he can’t control his behaviour. And I think we sign on for different things. If you’re in a leadership position or in a leading company or more exposed, you’re just that much more vulnerable.”

Reinforcing corporate brand values is important, and most companies don’t focus on this enough, said McQuillan.

“The responsibility falls to the employer to reinforce values,” she said.

“Ideally, the employer is reinforcing their values through regular communications to employees, and you don’t have such instances at any company event or in any situation where you’re representing your company.”

“Communicate, communicate, communicate to your employees around brand values, and that will reinforce behaviour. And when there are incidents where employees are not representing the company brand, and/or behaving unprofessionally, those should be assessed individually and consistently.”

Social media increases transparency and puts more pressure on organizations to respond quickly to crises, said Williams. Many view “social media shaming” as a way to exact revenge on someone through their employment.

“News travels extraordinarily fast because of social media,” she said.

“People have no issue opining on their view, based on their moral or ethical standard on how people conduct themselves.

“It really behooves employers to have solid codes of conduct, first of all, but also to be ready from a communications standpoint with respect to how do you respond if an employee is allegedly caught up in some high-profile scandal and your brand is co-opted.”

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