Monday, December 15, 2014

Lessons Learned from Sony

By now virtually everyone in the U.S. (and many elsewhere) have heard or read about the email debacle at Sony, where emails – critical and sometimes nasty emails about the talent that makes the company so much money – were published without the consent of the authors of those embarrassing emails. Some say now that it was the work of a disgruntled employee that brought those emails to light. If the emails of influential Sony executives can be leaked, is any organization safe from the same type of embarrassment? What can any employer learn from the troubles as Sony.

1. A disgruntled employee can be a loose cannon. Unhappy employees (or ex-employees) are a little like that boyfriend of girlfriend that you didn’t treat so sensitively when you knew it was time to move on. They’re often really angry. And sometimes they’re a bit irrational and look for a way to get revenge. Never underestimate the fury of a jilted love or a disgruntled employee. Prepare for the worst.

Most supervisors know when an employee is angry about their job. Many can see that an employee is chronically unhappy. Usually their state of mind about their job is a direct result of their poor performance or misconduct or it causes poor performance or misconduct. In either event, the point is that supervisors can usually spot an employee who might make trouble because rarely, if ever, are they among the top employees in the organization. The problem is not figuring out who they are, the problem is figuring out what to do about them.

Many employers don’t do anything about a disgruntled employee because they either don’t know what to do or they are afraid of overreacting. Consider these options:

a. If an employee is a chronic poor performer, consider releasing rather than demoting or reassigning the employee. This may sound harsh but a negative action like removing authority or responsibilities from an employee often creates an angry or bitter employee. That attitude infects the workplace and leaves the employer open to the possibility of a vengeful action. Employers should always consider releasing a poor performing employee. If you feel bad about it, consider a severance package to assist the employee with a transition. Of course, this assumes that documentation exists to support the decision.

b. Guard against vengeful activity. If you feel that you can’t discharge a disgruntled employee, ensure that they can’t easily destroy the organization or anyone in it. The lifeblood of most organizations is now their IT system. An angry employee shouldn’t have access to the system to an extent that they can cause havoc. Limit that access appropriately. You don’t want them accessing any information that could harm your operation or, as Sony executives will tell you, embarrass anyone. If your disgruntled employee is in the IT department, consider the suggestion above and release them.

c. An employer can always keep tabs on an angry employee through its own IT and social media. A good internet and social media policy reminds employees that they have no expectation of privacy in their work emails and their use of company hardware and software. An employer is not prohibited from checking on an employee’s activity on the internet and through emails. It may help the employer to better understand the state of mind of the employee and provide forewarning of potential or actual misconduct. The same holds true for social media. Any information available to the public is fair game for an employer to review. One big caution is of course that general criticism of an employer or supervisor may be protected activity and an employer may not take action based on that information. Only actual threats or statements of intent to harm the organization or someone in it can be used as the basis for action against the employee.

d. Fortunately it is rare that disgruntled employees resort to violence, but be prepared for that if you have a really angry employee. Employers with a plan against workplace violence are neither being overdramatic nor overreacting. It’s a sad necessity in these times.

2. The other lesson of which employers should be reminded from the Sony leak, is don’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want read on the news! Email has become such an integral part of the fabric of everyday communication that many people forget that it is much more similar to writing a letter than it is to making a phone call. Yet, many people include information or opinion in an email that they would never write in a letter. Employers should make it their policy to never discuss personnel matters among themselves in emails and anything they want to say about clients, customers or the public, that may be sensitive in nature, should be conveyed by picking up the telephone and speaking it, not emailing about it. Of course, this does not include emails that address legitimate operational or performance concerns or complaints from clients, customers or the public. Documentation of business issues is appropriate; but personnel strategies, commentary and personal criticism is not.

The old adage is that you learn more from your failures than your successes. The Sony email leak is a failure from which all employers can learn or be reminded of what they already know. Disgruntled employees shouldn’t be left to stew. A proactive and protective employer will likely never be publicly embarrassed by its staff.