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As a business, you need to be able to trust your employees. That’s a no-brainer, I know; obviously you want to make sure your staff aren’t being rude to customers or clients, stealing from you, or doing anything inappropriate during work hours. But oftentimes employees think as soon as they leave the office or punch out for the day, they can leave their work behavior at work. And that mindset can result in some embarrassing or problematic reputation issues for your company.

Let’s look at a couple recent examples where workers exhibited some inappropriate behavior outside of traditional business hours and faced scrutiny from their employers. Last month, a barista in Seattle (the city I call home) was fired from his job after his employer discovered his “Bitter Barista” blog. The barista, Matt Watson, had been maintaining an anonymous blog where he snarkily posted about difficult customers and made remarks about ignoring patrons with certain dietary restrictions (asking for 2% milk instead of whole, having a gluten allergy, etc). The blog was fairly popular, and eventually two sleuths in Portland, Oregon, figured out who was behind the often mean-spirited rants.

Said Zachary Carlsen and Jordan Michelman, the two men who outed Watson:

“There’s a lot of anger in this blog, and while we love the well-worn barista cliché, it should be the stuff of mild parody, not an all-out assault on whomever walks through the door of your cafe.”

Once Watson realized the cat was out of the bag, he tried to take a proactive approach with his boss, saying his blog was actually good press for the coffee shop and that the establishment’s Facebook likes had increased 15%. It was an admirable Hail Mary approach, but his boss wasn’t thrilled with the fact that some of the posts were written during business hours and that customers were being talked about in a negative light. Thus, Mr. Watson got 86’d.

The second example actually involves two firings from a single incident. You may have heard about the recent PyCon (a Python programming conference) incident. If not, I’ll provide a brief summary. An attendee named Adria Richards overheard a Playhaven employee making a juvenile joke about “big” dongles and got offended by his comments. She tweeted a picture of him and also blogged about how his remarks were “not cool.”

Richards' tweet (with the eavesdropped attendees' faces obscured)

Richards’ tweet (with the eavesdropped attendees’ faces obscured)

Playhaven, who was one of the conference’s sponsors, reacted by firing the employee, saying they’re a company that is “dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Richards also got let go from her place of employment, SendGrid, who released the following statement:

Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers.

In these two (well, three) instances, each employee exhibited unprofessional behavior outside “standard” business hours, and the result was getting fired. Personally, I think the coffee shop acted appropriately while both Playhaven and SendGrid overreacted. In the coffee shop example, the employee repeatedly disparaged the establishment’s customers and potentially put them in health risks for not adhering to some of their dietary restrictions. From a reputation management standpoint, the employee was bad for business and had to be let go. You could argue that the coffee shop could have embraced the “Bitter Barista” mentality and enjoyed a new reputation for being snarky or surly, but I don’t fault the owner for wanting to keep its friendly appeal.

The PyCon incident, on the other hand, is more of a gray area. Your employees absolutely need to know that when they’re at a conference or trade show, they’re still representing your brand even though they’re outside of the traditional office setting. That means no drunken antics and no sexist or inappropriate behavior. That said, I don’t think making a “dongle” joke to a friend is grounds for termination. It’s an immature comment to make, sure, but it was directed towards someone who understood it was a joke and not meant to be taken seriously. Ms. Richards happened to overhear the comment and get offended.

Now, I’m not saying that just because the comment wasn’t directed towards Ms. Richards, she shouldn’t have been offended. Obviously, if you overhear someone making explicit remarks that make you uncomfortable, you have the right to feel offended. But where Ms. Richards stumbled was taking the employee’s photo without his permission and tweeting about his behavior as well as blogging about it rather than privately asking him not to make those jokes or moving away from him. “Public shaming” has become easier than ever thanks to the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, but it’s also become an overly convenient way to complain about a situation that could very well be better suited to handle personally and privately. Ms. Richards did not do the decent thing and talk to the employee about his behavior. Instead, she publicly embarrassed him and shamed him for acting juvenile.

Each company, Playhaven and SendGrid, is now faced with an embarrassing dilema. Playhaven was alerted that one of their employees who was in attendance to represent their brand as a conference sponsor made a fellow attendee uncomfortable with a childish comment. SendGrid was aware that one of their employees publicly shamed a colleague and acted equally unprofessionally. To save face, they both got rid of the “problem” by terminating the employees involved. I find this reaction to be a bit knee-jerk. Did each person deserve to get fired for his and her actions? In my opinion, not necessarily. A stiff reprimand, some sensitivity training, and a little PR offering up an apology and a commitment to educate your employees about appropriate behavior when attending events and interacting with the public via social media would have been a perfectly reasonable reaction (and it would have saved two people from having to find new jobs).

However, while I personally would have handled the issue differently, I understand that like the coffee shop, both Playhaven and SendGrid wanted to err on the side of caution and get rid of the employees who were creating problems for their brands. As a business, you need to protect the integrity of your brand as best you can, whether that involves educating your employees to represent you appropriately both at work and outside of work, or if it means letting go of the folks who have created problems.

Education is key, though, and it doesn’t stop once you’ve hired someone. These examples I’ve highlighted each bring up important takeaways and best practices for you to ensure you and your employees are on the same page when it comes to how to conduct themselves professionally:

  • Provide each new employee with a handbook outlining the behavior you expect from them. How should they dress? How should they treat customers, clients, and colleagues?
  • Clearly illustrate the difference between “office” behavior and “public” or “event” behavior. Maybe you have a lax work environment where ripped jeans, the occasional curse word, and silly behavior is fine. But if you expect more professionalism from your staff when they meet with clients or when they’re attending a conference or trade show, clearly outline what the differences are.
  • Make sure your employees understand your company’s social media guidelines. This doesn’t just apply to managing your company’s profile pages — it should extend to your employees’ personal profiles as well. Explicitly state what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to referencing your brand, your work environment, and your customers online. Too often individuals complain about their jobs on Facebook or Twitter or make questionable remarks that go against company policy. As an employer, you should have a conversation with your staff and let them know what sort of updates or sharing is frowned upon and can cause trouble.
  • Know your employees’ websites. Or try to, anyway. Obviously the coffee shop was unaware of the Bitter Barista blog since the employee ran it anonymously, but try to get an idea of which sites your employees maintain or contribute to. I recommend doing this right off the bat, preferably before you even hire the person. If you’re uncomfortable with a particular blog a prospective hire is operating, that’s a pretty obvious sign you shouldn’t hire the person. If, however, you’re fine with the content being produced, let your employee know and just remind him or her to keep work matters out of his/her personal website. Keep an “open door” policy, too — have your staff run new website ideas by you so you can make sure any potential pet projects won’t conflict with your company’s bottom line. (That doesn’t mean you should be completely controlling of what your employees do, just be cautious and try to communicate with them to ensure you’re keeping your brand under control.)
  • Reeducate and remind often. Have behavior refresher meetings before your company travels to an event or meets with a big client. You don’t have to treat your staff like children and lecture them every day, but occasional workshops and reminders can’t hurt. You can trust your employees and be cautious at the same time.

People make mistakes, and your employees will stumble often. But if you educate them right off the bat and offer occasional reminders of how they can represent your brand professionally and appropriately in various settings (at work, at events, online, in their personal lives), you won’t have to do as much damage control down the road because your staff will have a good understanding of how to be respectful and conscious of how their behavior can affect your business.