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Bashing HR on the Web

December 1, 1999
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For the last two years, Southwest Airlines has been named one of the top five firms on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. "Employees love Southwest," Fortune's researchers write, "not excluding the 85 percent who are unionized hourly workers."

But several employees who've been participating on a Southwest Airlines message board on the Internet tell a different story. In response to a question posted by a recent MBA graduate interested in working for the company, ‘tc writes: "Do not—I REPEAT DO NOT—waste your time and education on Southworst Airlines. It is a ‘good ol boy company."

Joe Contractor agrees. "SWA is like a small town culture where they re not all that smart, don't particularly care for each other, but are civil to one another in public."

The gross mismatch between a company s public image and its employees private opinions isn't unique to Southwest Airlines, of course. People have complained about their employers since paychecks were written in squid ink on parchment paper. But thanks to the Internet, employees now have a chance to vent in a highly public—albeit anonymous—fashion. Sitting behind their home computers late at night, countless American workers are logging online in order to make accusations, share salary information, post company secrets, organize union activities and even recruit attorneys for class-action lawsuits. In the process, they have the potential to undermine virtually everything HR does.

What can today s HR professionals do about this alarming trend? You have a choice:

A) You can ignore it, which many companies are—much to their own detriment.

B) You can be horrified by it, which you likely will be once you find out the extent of destructive information that's out there.

C) You can go after the offending employees, which only makes sense if a law has been broken.

Or, D) You can take the advice of HR consultants, academics and employment lawyers who agree that the best course of action is to regard online conversations as a valuable source of information for your company. As Anne Pauker, president of The Pauker Consulting Group based in Hazlet, New Jersey, explains: "This is one of the best ways for HR to get real-time, honest feedback about company culture."

But before we talk about strategies to deal with all the employment information that is being circulated online, let's talk about why and how this is happening.

You've got rage!
Anybody who s ever had a job has discussed it with others. Workers grouse about lousy bosses at happy hour. They discuss salary negotiations with colleagues over the phone. They talk about company culture at industry conferences. From prepping for interviews to grumbling about the latest restructuring, employees have always turned to others to complain, seek help and gain support. The difference now is that thanks to the World Wide Web, people can complain, seek help and gain support in a much more public manner.

According to Fred Crandall, founding partner of the Center for Workforce Effectiveness in Northbrook, Illinois, the Internet is a natural place for employees to share information and air their complaints because it offers a combination of anonymity and intimacy. People can divulge highly personal information about their experiences and keep their identity a secret. It s a powerful combination that plays itself out in some interesting ways.

At Vault.com—which bills itself as an online site "dedicated to letting job seekers know what life is really like at the nation s big-name employers"—there are dozens of company-specific message boards where employees can post information. These boards are not sanctioned by the companies themselves, mind you.

Listed alphabetically from 3COM to Zurich Kemper Scudder, the boards allow anyone with anything to say about a company to type a message. As of mid-October, more than 36,000 messages had been posted onto these boards. While some of the notes are from people who actually like working for these companies, many of them have the potential to destroy the good work of a company s HR department.

Anybody who's ever had a job has discussed it with others. The difference now is that people complain, seek help and gain support in a much more public manner.

For example, if you were to take a look at the recruitment page on Merrill Lynch s official Web site, you d read how the company is "a meritocracy—a performance-driven environment." But click on the unofficial Merrill Lynch message board on Vault.com and you ll hear the unfiltered flip side: "You can be dumb as a rock and if you have the right connections the sky s the limit," says ‘ex-worker bee.

At Walt Disney World, potential employees are encouraged to apply to "make friends, make magic and make a difference." But on Vault.com, existing employees grumble that "morale has gone downhill ... the pay isn t that great ... and employees are regularly told: ‘You're not here to have fun, you re here to sign autographs and take pictures. "

Things aren t much better on the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. message board, where existing employees actively encourage others not to apply to the company. Under a discussion thread entitled, "Don't Interview Here!" one worker writes: "I'm convinced the people in human resources only call in people to interview in order to make themselves look busy." Ouch!

But as bad as the flaming gets on Vault.com, the site is still just one of many places where unhappy employees can sound off online.

At Disgruntled.com, people are encouraged to tell stories about why their job sucks, how miserable their boss is and what they do to vent their frustration or get even. The site even warns new users that the pages contain language that may be deemed "inappropriate for employers."

At temp24-7.com, temporary workers are invited to commiserate with others like them and tell Corporate America about their personal struggles with temping.

At Yahoo.com, message boards allow users to freely exchange salary information and prepare each other for upcoming interviews at specific companies.

At IBMUnion.com, the company s U.S. employees keep each other abreast of union organizing activities. Under a home page banner that reads, "Welcome to the Revolution," a warning says that the site is considered a union gathering and that it is illegal for employers to spy or pretend to spy.

In the current online environment, even a company s official Web site isn t safe from employees with an agenda. Thanks to a new software program called Third Voice, anybody can visit your Web site and post a digital sticky note that can be read by anyone else with the same software. If your site claims the company is "An Equal Opportunity Employer," for example, an employee who disagrees could highlight that text and place a note above it that says: "In reality, blacks and women don t stand a chance here."

What's the HR impact?
By now you re probably wondering what kind of measurable impact all this is having on companies. Well, it s hard to say for sure. Steven Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, specializes in research related to the Internet. He says research on how activist groups use the Internet provides evidence that the Web is an extremely effective tool for both disseminating information and recruiting new members—particularly for groups that appeal to educated, middle-class Americans who own home computers.

Because of this, Jones says one could easily make the assumption that people with the means to go online and the interest in doing so are more likely to exchange information about their current or potential employers. Clearly, this puts companies that use high-tech, high-salaried and/or well-educated workers most at risk. In fact, the three most popular message boards on Vault.com are those devoted to comments about Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, with 1,741 messages posted as of mid-October; Goldman Sachs, with 1,231 messages, and Andersen Consulting, with 888 messages. All three of these firms recruit heavily for the well-educated, technologically savvy professionals who are most likely to take advantage of online forums, and the amount of traffic on their message boards bears this out.

What is being said on the Net is enough of a concern that many companies are starting to pursue something called "online corporate reputation management."

While it may be difficult to show the direct damage caused by the online information exchange, what is being said on the Internet is enough of a concern that many companies are starting to pursue something called "online corporate reputation management." New Gate Internet Inc., a Sausalito, California-based company that specializes in online public relations, routinely monitors the Internet to uncover negative or false information that is being circulated online about their clients. In some cases, the firm has discovered information that, had it been found earlier, could have saved company managers a lot of headaches.

"We had a client who called us because they were in the middle of an overall public relations disaster and had just had a class-action lawsuit filed against them," explains Jarkko Cain, director of operations. "We researched the Internet a few months back and found evidence of a few particular lawyers who were recruiting online for a class-action lawsuit." Obviously, if the company had known about this ahead of time, they might have done something to avert the litigation.

But this is probably a rare case, right? Maybe, maybe not. On a Web site called Untied.com, which is designed as a repository for complaints about United Airlines, a group of UAL employees are advertising for a lawyer to represent them in a sexual harassment case. Interested attorneys can simply send a message to a designated e-mail address.

Put all this together and it s obvious that the extensive amount of employment information that is available online has the potential to encourage litigation, harm a company s recruitment efforts and interfere with salary negotiation. It can also affect relationships with temporary workers, encourage union campaigns and interfere with a company s overall ability to conduct business. Is there anything a company can do about all this? After all, isn t the Internet really just a digitized version of the water cooler where employees have gathered to gossip for years? Isn't the World Wide Web simply another vehicle for free speech where users have a right to say anything they darn well please? Not necessarily.

Fight back.
There are three instances in which companies have a legal right to fight back against the online information exchange, according to Dan Johnson, a partner with the Washington, D.C., office of McKenna & Cuneo, an international law firm. These instances are when an employee is disclosing confidential information or trade secrets, is defaming the company, or is using the Internet to compete with his or her employer. However, the problem with legally attacking employees is that damages in these cases can be difficult to prove. Can you prove your company is having a hard time hiring people because someone in a chat room said that all managers were a bunch of bozos?

But just because damages are difficult to prove does not mean these cases are impossible to win—especially when the sharing of trade secrets is involved. Earlier this year, Raytheon Corp., the Lexington, Massachusetts-based defense giant, sued 21 online chatters for allegedly disclosing company secrets via a message board on Yahoo.com. The message board, used by employees and investors, includes gossip and criticism by anonymous participants. Raytheon claimed in its suit that the board also contained sensitive and confidential information such as bid proposals, unreleased financial data and pending company divestitures.

One approach is to advise employees that during work time, their e-mail and Internet usage are subject to company monitoring because they're using company property.

The company subpoenaed Yahoo to get the identities of the posting employees who went by such screen names as "Raytheonveteran," and "Ditchraytheon." (Despite the fact that users think they are anonymous, with the right legal muscle, users can be identified through registration information on search engines.) The Raytheon case has since been resolved, and although no details are available, two employees—including a vice president—resigned in the wake of the lawsuit.

While the high-profile Raytheon case made it to the pages of The Wall Street Journal, it is still the exception, not the rule. "When it comes to employees and the Internet, I tend to take the ‘no-harm, no-foul approach to lawsuits," Johnson explains. "If a company is not being harmed by an employee s conduct and it is not a pervasive problem where the company feels it needs to take a stand in order to send a message to the rest of the workforce, there are much less expensive remedies than litigation, including discipline or termination."

But even discipline or termination only makes sense if you have a policy that forbids employees from using the Internet for personal use on work time, a policy that forbids employees from disclosing certain kinds of information (salary information included), or a policy against making disparaging remarks about the company. However, such policies can be difficult to enforce and they can generate ill will among employees. A better approach, Johnson suggests, is to advise employees that during work time, their e-mail and Internet usage are subject to company monitoring because they re using company property. Instead of telling employees what they can and cannot do, you hope that by letting them know they might be watched they will decide for themselves it s not worth the risk to talk about the company online.

In the final analysis, if employees are using their home computers after hours simply to share their opinions, there isn t much an HR person can do to legally attack the problem. However, there are things that HR can do to minimize the likelihood that online venting will get out of hand, and it starts with looking at the Internet as a treasure trove of unfiltered employee feedback.

Use the Internet to HR s advantage.
The next time you have a few spare minutes at work, log on to the Internet and type in the name of your company in a search engine. Spend some time scrolling through the entries and see if you can find a bulletin board or chat room where employees might be talking about the company. Then, once you find one of these sites, swallow hard and take time to read what employees are saying about you.

"It's not easy to realize that the people who work for you by day are talking trash about you at night," says Crandall. "It's like being a parent and hearing your kid say that he hates you." But Crandall and other HR consultants believe the Internet is a great source of information and feedback that can be used to shape communication strategies and employment practices.

If you discover, for example, that employees are using online chat rooms to complain about recent changes in the company pension, and that the complaints appear to be the result of a misinterpretation of how benefits are calculated, you can use that information to develop new communications materials that clarify the changes.

"It's human nature to share stories, be they myth or reality," Jones explains. "HR professionals don t have any control over the myths, but they have a lot of control over reality."

The best way to combat online gossip is to make sure that employees have access to an abundance of accurate information.

Howard Weizmann, managing consultant of the Washington office of Watson Wyatt Worldwide, agrees that the best way to combat online gossip is to make sure that employees have access to an abundance of accurate information. "Thanks to the Internet, the HR communication challenge is much greater," he says. "HR professionals have to work that much harder to make sure that there s enough information out there so that the good information drives out the bad—instead of the other way around."

If enough accurate information is circulating, one employee can correct another online if false information is being shared. Should HR staffers ever be the ones to log on and try to change people s opinions? "No," Jones says. "You'll be ganged up on and dismissed as a shill or corporate mouthpiece—and those are the nice words." Instead, HR should focus on providing extensive, accurate and detailed information about whatever is most important to employees.

In addition to beefing up your communication efforts, HR must also be willing to address the systemic issues that people are complaining about. "A lot of problems emanate from not having such things as sexual harassment and grievance policies," explains John E. Quinn, partner in the Labor Law Department at Reed, Smith, Shaw and McClay based in Philadelphia.

For example, if you notice employees complaining about discrimination, it may indicate the need for some diversity-awareness training. If employees in a particular division agree that the vice president of that division is a "flaming s.o.b. who treats women like slaves," an internal investigation may be in order. If contract workers are using a message board to complain that long-term contractors are treated like dirt, you may need to review your policies regarding contingent workers. Whatever the complaint is, you must be willing to take a look at the underlying cause—and you must have a process for employees with complaints to get them resolved.

In fact, this is how the human resources staffers at United Airlines deal with complaints that are posted on Untied.com. "We have clear procedures for grievance," explains spokesperson Andy Plews. "The best way to get our attention is not through the Internet but rather to go through the channels that are already set up."

Heed some words of warning.
As you bravely begin to tiptoe around the Internet in search of employee gossip, keep in mind that negative comments tend to outweigh positive ones in the online environment. If you work for Microsoft, prepare yourself for heated discussions about stock options. If you work for Disney, don t be surprised when you read that theme park employees feel underpaid. If you work for UPS, prepare yourself for comments advising job candidates: "If you have a degree, take it elsewhere."

"Just as you shouldn t accept all positive comments about the company as the honest truth about how people feel, you shouldn t trust all negative comments either," Pauker explains. Counterbalance your online research with additional information sources.

And by the way, for readers who feel that Workforce shouldn't be publishing the unsubstantiated, online comments of anonymous employees, keep in mind that this magazine has a national circulation of 50,000. The Internet, where all the comments in this article first appeared, reaches a worldwide audience in the tens of millions.

"The Internet is so vast, there really is nothing HR can do to stop the free flow of comments from employees," Pauker adds. "Nor should they." The Internet is the greatest source of employee information ever available to employers. Instead of stopping the flow of information, HR should learn to listen.

Workforce, December 1999, Vol. 78, No. 12, pp. 36-42.

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