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Experts weigh in on effective employee social media policies

Experts say employee education and corporate social media policies are essential to protecting restaurant brands in the digital age.

Social media has become a garden of delights for restaurant marketing, recruiting and consumer engagement. But the burgeoning new communications platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Internet bulletin boards have in some cases grown into a bramble of problems.

A St. Louis-area Applebee’s franchisee in late January fired a server for posting a photo of a customer’s credit card receipt on the Reddit website. The customer, a church pastor, had crossed out an automatic large-party tip and written across the check: “I give God 10 percent. Why do you get 18?”

The firing of the server, who was not the person who waited on the customer, went viral on Internet news sites and fueled an Applebee’s backlash across the Internet.

An Applebee’s franchisee experienced Internet backlash after firing an employee who posted a customer’s credit card receipt on Reddit.

“We are absolutely not excusing the guest’s behavior in this matter,” said Dan Smith, spokesman for Kansas City, Mo.-based Applebee’s. “We’re simply not taking sides.”

But the server did violate company policy on releasing the data, which has raised concerns about what policies operators should have in place to prevent social media problems from occurring.

Applebee’s is not alone. In May 2012 a server was fired from the Angus Barn in Raleigh, N.C., for violating the restaurant’s privacy policy. The server had posted a photograph of a credit card receipt from Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who had left a nearly 50-percent tip on a $625 bill.

To help deal with potential problems linked to questionable behavior on social media, experts recommend that operators take proactive steps by outlining company policies and then educating their employees. However, even that may not be enough to solve the problem.

“Policy is great because you can invoke it when you need it,” said Margaret “Molly” DiBianca, an employment law attorney with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor LLP in Wilmington, Del. “But no good employer should want to use the ‘gotcha principle,’ where they say ‘Aha! I gotcha, and I’ve got a policy and can fire you because I have a policy.’ The smart employer wants the incident to never occur.”

DiBianca said corporate social media policies are becoming increasingly difficult, if not nearly impossible, to write amid fast-changing federal rules on such issues as employees’ privacy rights on social media passwords.

Brands' best defense

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The best defense, she said, is educating staff members on acceptable and unacceptable conduct on social media.

“The best way to do that is by example,” DiBianca said. “At the staff meeting or lineup, pull the Applebee’s story out and ask, ‘What do we think about this? Is this acceptable? What are the problems with this? How would this make our restaurant or our business look? Who was in the wrong?’”

Creating conversation about best practices is the preferred method, she said.

“Having employees engage in a conversation about these issues very informally enables you as an employer to 1) get your finger on the pulse of where your employees are — oftentimes employers are very surprised at what they hear — and then 2) give your employees some fair notice about what the company’s policies are,” DiBianca said.

Rules need to change with the times, noted Matthew Mabel, president of Dallas-based Surrender Inc., a restaurant consulting and organizational-development firm.

“Modern ways to engage with guests come with a need for new rules in a way we could not have even imagined five years ago,” Mabel said. “Restaurant employee manuals ought to be revised to clarify what constitutes both company intellectual property and company-owned materials.

“Putting something on [Reddit], Instagram and Pinterest will require permission, like the release of any company content does,” Mabel said.

Social media issues have been addressed by the National Labor Relations Board over the past two years, DiBianca added.

“The National Labor Relations Act applies to both union and nonunion workplaces,” DiBianca said. “[The NLRB] has taken an increasingly aggressive approach about what does and does not violate the National Labor Relations Act when it comes to social media. For the past year they have been striking down policies left and right on the basis that the social media policies are overly broad.”

DiBianca said some of her legal colleagues believe it’s becoming impossible to actually write a social media policy that will be upheld by the NLRB, especially on provisions like confidentiality of personal social media passwords.

However, an employer can look to other existing policies to help develop a set of standards that apply online as well as in the real world. Those include such points as confidentiality, harassment, theft and workplace violence.

“The best thing to do is look at your other policies and realize that they apply just as much  if you are standing at the [work] water cooler or posting on a Facebook page,” DiBianca said.

Companies also should identify individuals within the company who employees can seek out if they have questions.

Employees will talk

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DiBianca, whose husband, Michael DiBianca, is chef-owner of Wilmington’s Moro Restaurant and a two-time James Beard Award nominee, said the restaurant business also will have employees who talk about others in the business, and that can spill into their social media interactions.

“The nature of the business is that waiters and employees are going to talk, and the reality is they are likely to talk badly about the management and the organization,” she said. “Supervisors are ill-equipped to deal with this stuff, and they take it personally. They’ll react from an emotional and ego perspective and not from a business perspective. ... The managers have to be trained not to overreact and [be provided with] skills about what to do.”

Increasingly, she said, states are addressing social media issues, especially in the employee-facing realm.

Social media legislation has been passed in states like California, Michigan and New Jersey to prohibit employers from requesting an employee’s social media passwords.

“Don’t, under any circumstances, ask an applicant or employee for their passwords. Ever. It’s probably illegal, it may be illegal, or it will be soon,” she said.

Mabel added that companies must communicate to employees what they think the brand stands for and what is permissible in that brand’s culture.

“You would not let your employees design your website without approvals,” he said. “So why would you let them on social media without specific direction? Training, branding, culture and hiring practices all come into play in creating positive social media content. Employee-generated content is an outgrowth of all four.” 

Social media use by employees actually can be a positive, he added.

“Some of the best brand ambassadors are restaurant employees. Social media is the perfect place to harness and leverage their enthusiasm for the brand,” Mabel said.

DiBianca said a brief weekly or biweekly discussion about social media issues during pre-shift meetings can help prevent problems.

“You’ll find employees will bring in articles or bring up news stories themselves,” she said. “It’s not bad people or bad employees; they just don’t connect the dots when it comes to social media stuff.” 

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless.

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