An affair to remember. An affair to talk about. An affair to be splashed across the front page of every newspaper, damaging company reputation. An affair to cause incalculable harm to the reputations of your business and managers…
At the time of writing, such is the situation currently confronting Seven West Media and its CEO, as assertions of his indiscretions are detailed with enthusiasm by competing members of the media establishment. What was once apparently a private, consensual relationship with a former employee has now turned into a public circus and threat to company reputation.
But it’s not just personal reputations that are at stake here — organisations themselves are affected when the errors of their employees become front page news. So, what can a business do when the Daily Telegraph publishes the sordid details of its staff’s personal lives and the alleged “poisonous workplace culture” of its organisation?
1. Know the full story
It can often be difficult to determine all the facts when there are allegations of employee misconduct. Conflicting narratives can leave a business uncertain over whether the act of publicly supporting their employee is the right move to protect company reputation. Premature denials of liability or decisions to “stand by your man” have the potential to backfire spectacularly if those outrageous accusations of trysts in the filing room later turn out to be uncomfortably true.
With this in mind, it is vital that a business conduct its own inquiries or engage an external investigator to protect (preferably subject to legal professional privilege) and satisfy itself of what has occurred before it takes a public position in response to unkind rumours or apparent scandals.
2. Get ahead of the story
It is often said in politics that, as far as the media is concerned, the cover-up can be worse than the crime. One of the issues that dogged Hillary Clinton throughout her recent campaign was her refusal to disclose the transcripts of private speeches she had previously given to Goldman Sachs. Rumours abounded of what might have been said behind closed doors.
The transcripts were eventually leaked, to the delight of her political opponents. However, the content of the transcripts was probably nowhere near as damaging as the months-long coverage of the saga, consistently bringing the issue to the forefront of the public’s attention.
In the same way, businesses can often greatly benefit from being transparent and responsive to any negative stories about them.
3. Don’t let history repeat itself
As the saying goes: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so it is important to implement any relevant operational changes to prevent similar wrongdoing and damage to company reputation occurring in the future. This includes changes to processes, procedures and relevant company policies that may have contributed to, or even caused, the problem. Consider training all staff about appropriate and professional workplace behaviour.
Applying the above may seem difficult – but it can be done! In early 2016, ANZ was the subject of claims in which two employees alleged that there was a toxic workplace culture involving sex, drugs and alcohol within its market division. ANZ vigorously and publicly denied the assertions to protect company reputation, until the claims were eventually withdrawn by the employees.
Consider what systems, policies and training your business currently has in place to avoid a possible media furore and protect the company reputation. Prioritise your resources to avoid possible damage instead of trying to minimise it. Encourage a “speak up” culture where bad behaviour or conduct is called out, managed and resolved in an expedient and considered way.
Aaron Goonrey is a Partner and Luke Scandrett is a Lawyer in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice. Aaron can be contacted at email@example.com