© 2002 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Editor's Note: I'd written a slightly different version of these tenets several years ago, but I'd be a poor professional if I didn't continue to evolve.
The Five Tenets of Crisis Communications
Crisis communications must be:
- PROMPT -- else rumor and innuendo fill the void.
- COMPASSIONATE -- consider the reality that addressing feelings is often more important, initially, than addressing facts.
- HONEST -- or it will come back and bite you!
- INFORMATIVE -- enough information to create a story without legally compromising your situation.
- INTERACTIVE -- allow for two-way communication with all important audiences, using methods most appropriate to each.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Editor's Note: I'm pleased to be able to continue our recently announced editorial practice of bringing you articles reflecting expert legal opinion that complements the PR side of crisis management. In this issue, we discuss a labor and employment issue -- a "hostile environment" -- something that should be detected, and prevented, BEFORE it results in crises.
Hostile Environment Harassment -- The Legal Perspective
by David Kern, Quarles & Brady LLP
Under Federal Law and the laws of most individual states, a variety of protections against discrimination exist. For example, Federal Law prohibits discrimination based on age, race, sex, disability, religion, color, and national origin. State laws often go farther, prohibiting discrimination on such bases as sexual orientation, marital status, conviction record, and the like. These laws prohibit discriminatory treatment based on any protected status, and also prohibit employers from allowing employees to be subjected to harassment on any protected basis. Employees may bring claims before the EEOC or a counterpart state agency alleging that they have been subjected to hostile environment harassment on the bases enumerated above.
The elements of the hostile environment harassment claim are that the employee was subjected to an unwelcome and offensive work environment based on their protected status, which interfered with their work performance. The hostile environment must be subjectively unwelcome to the particular employee, in the sense that they did not invite the behavior, and objectively offensive, in the sense that a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position would find the treatment to be unreasonable, offensive, and an interference with work.
Examples of hostile environment harassment, such as sexual harassment, include unwelcome touching, leering, sexually oriented jokes or cartoons, sexually oriented comments and epithets, and even staring at an employee's body. Hostile environment harassment can also occur based on racial or religious jokes, ethnic insults, offensive emails relating to protected characteristics, and similar inappropriate workplace behavior.
Employers can be liable for hostile environment harassment engaged in by their supervisors and fellow employees. Employers can be liable for compensatory damages (such as damages for emotional distress) and punitive damages, even if the victim has suffered no tangible loss of benefits such as a firing or a demotion. Perhaps worse, evidence that an employer maintains a hostile environment can be used in support of other discriminatory treatment claims to show that the employer is insensitive to work- place behavior that denigrates others. For example, an individual plaintiff may bring a race discrimination claim over his/her firing and use evidence that the employer tolerates the telling of racial jokes in the workplace as evidence in support of the claim of a discriminatory motive towards that minority employee. In such cases, jury outrage can be a significant factor in an adverse award.
Employers can prevent and eliminate such hostile environment harassment by maintaining and diligently enforcing a policy against such harassment. If an employer maintains and publicizes its anti-harassment policy, and if a victim of harassment fails to utilize the policy to attempt to correct the problem, an employer may be able to defend such a claim successfully. As in most situations, it is clear that preventing such behavior from occurring in the first place is the best defense against hostile environment harassment claims.
Hostile Environment Harassment -- The PR Perspective
by Jonathan Bernstein
The PR side of this issue relates to three essential principles of crisis prevention and response:
- Perception IS reality.
- Policy that doesn't include training, monitoring and enforcement is often a starting point for crises.
- Every employee is a PR representative for the organization, whether you want them to be or not.
I have worked with countless organizations whose leadership and legal counsel were convinced that they were in compliance with all labor and employment laws.
But, in some cases, their employees didn't agree. Some of those employees sued them or filed EEOC complaints -- and regardless of the eventual legal outcome, damage was done.
Many of those employees gossiped -- to each other, to customers, to people in the outside community. All causing damage to the organization's reputation.
A comprehensive vulnerability audit of any organization should involve both PR and legal review of all existing human resources policies. First for legal compliance. Then from a "reality check" viewpoint, asking questions such as:
- Do our employees actually understand the policy?
- If we think they do, how do we know that (hint: if the answer is "because they signed a form saying they'd read the policy," you should consider a more valid test of reality)?
- Do our employees think that we "walk our talk" regarding creating a friendly, versus hostile, environment?
- Do we know how our employees describe the work environment, or other HR-related matters, when they go home?
Teamwork between HR professionals, legal counsel and PR professionals who understand the above can help prevent or at least minimize damage from many of the crises that relate to employment matters.
David Kern is a partner at the law firm of Quarles & Brady LLP, www.quarles.com, where he chairs its labor and employment practice group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Editor's Note: this case history from Great Britain brings home some of the same points made in the above "Ounce of Prevention" article, while also reiterating a popular theme of this publication -- the role of ethics in crisis prevention and response.
Selling the Ethical Approach to Business
by Alex Blyth
Almost one in fifty British workers is employed by a call centre. As ever more business is done over the Internet and telephone an increasing number of staff have shifted from traditional manufacturing or retail environments into call centres to the point where they now employ more people than the coal, steel and vehicle manufacturing industries combined. This growth has been driven by companies in sectors ranging from banks and utilities to telecommunications that view call centres as a remarkably cheap way of maintaining customer relationships. It has become even cheaper recently with an ever-greater number of call centres in the developing world servicing UK customer enquiries. Phone bills to India may be higher, but this is more than offset by wage bills which are often a quarter of those in the UK; training on UK products may take longer, but it is clearly worth it when it is so easy to recruit a relatively compliant non-unionised workforce. However, the weaknesses of this strategy are beginning to emerge. The appalling working conditions in many call centres, both in the UK and the developing world, has been well documented, but, in the light of a growing link between unethical practices and reduced customer loyalty, this is becoming not only an ethical consideration, but also a compelling commercial one.
Staggeringly Bad Practice in Most Centres
In 2001 the TUC ran an extensive campaign, "It's Your Call," in which call centre workers were encouraged to report their bad bosses. The results from the 733 responses were staggering. One in four complained about extreme monitoring of their work. One in eight said their toilet breaks were monitored for frequency and duration. Some had to ask permission to go and others complained of being hauled up in front of bosses to explain why they were going so often. 15% said they were not given adequate breaks at work and some said they were given no breaks at all even though they were working more than a six-hour shift. 13% complained about health and safety issues. Some said they believed they were developing hearing problems, and in extreme cases were suffering from acoustic shock. Many reported already low wages being docked for turning up even a few minutes late. The TUC report and subsequent Channel 4 documentary, made it very clear that, whilst many call centres are run responsibly, far too many are cutting costs with the result that their staff are poorly treated and chronically demoralised.
How Not To Do It
The moral issues are clear to see. The commercial impetus to change is not, but can be vividly illustrated by this example of a situation with which we are all too familiar. Claire Dee is a 26-year old Business Development Director living in London. She has no dependents, few outgoings, and so and enjoys a high level of disposable income. As such she is a target of many expensive advertising and marketing campaigns, such as that run by lastminute.com. However, her relationship with that company ended after a bad experience with their call centre staff: "I bought a birthday present from lastminute.com over the Internet and it didn't arrive when promised. So, I called their help line. I was amazed by their incompetence. Hardly anyone I spoke to understood me - they simply didn't speak much English. They kept promising it would arrive but it didn't. Most annoyingly, no one seemed interested and not one single person apologised for all the mistakes that were made. In the end it arrived, but late, and only after I had called them about three times a day for a week. It was so infuriating that I'll never use lastminute.com again."
It is a pattern of lost customer loyalty that will be familiar to almost every UK consumer, and one that will be of increasing concern to companies who are happy to hive off their call centre operations to unethical businesses. They will be reassured to learn, though, that there are alternatives.
In 1998 the three Directors of Forward Emphasis identified the need for an ethically run call centre as a gap in the market. Their initial plan was to provide a clean supply chain for those not-for-profit organisations that advocate them in the developing world. However, they are also finding considerable demand for their services in the commercial sector. They handle out and in bound telemarketing and direct mail fulfillment work. All operations are governed by an Ethical Business Charter, which operates in three main ways. Firstly, they do everything they can to create an atmosphere where staff feel part of the company. In an industry where unionisation stands at only 44% and where many companies actively prevent unionisation, Forward Emphasis invited in UNISON and maintains an on-going dialogue between the board and the union. On an individual level staff have regular one-to-one appraisals. Secondly, Forward Emphasis are heavily involved in their local community. Amongst many other activities, they organise football matches and invite their neighbours, both residential and commercial, into the call centre to learn about and contribute to the business. Thirdly, they donate 10% of all net profit to charity. If and when the three joint owners sell the company they have pledged to donate a proportion of the proceeds to the Malmar Foundation. This charitable trust was set up in memory of the mother and father of two of the founders and has been the recipient of the majority of Forward Emphasis's charitable donations.
Branding Responsible Practice
The company has devised a brand image called "Making Ethics Work" which is encapsulated in a corporate logo, is on all the company's Business Cards and is highlighted as an internal sign within the Call Centre itself. This brand image has been instrumental in the success of the company. Forward Emphasis has grown rapidly in three years and aims to fill its 220-seat location within the next two years. Their client base has spread from not-for-profit organisations such as Amnesty International, the British Red Cross, and Shelter to profit-orientated companies such as the Abbey National, the Bank of Scotland, and Golden Pages, Ireland's version of the Yellow Pages. Primarily they have employed Forward Emphasis for commercial rather than ethical reasons. However, Kieron Kent, Sales Director of Forward Emphasis, argues that the two are inextricably linked in call centres. As he puts it, "The telephone is a one-dimensional medium. There are no visual aids to communication, and the actual mechanism of the telephone depresses the voice by roughly twenty percent. Therefore for the call handler to sound interested in the customer, enthusiastic about the product, and concerned in the service, it is crucial that they are happy in their environment. Our staff enjoy working here. They feel part of the company and feel as though they contribute to the community. That is evidenced by a staff turnover of zero. That in turn means they do a good job for our clients and we are able to boast achievements such as increasing Golden Pages's sales by 20%."
Increasingly call centre staff are the public's key interface with a company. If a call centre operator fails to develop a positive relationship with a customer, a vital opportunity for customer retention or repeat business has been lost. That customer will simply go elsewhere. When a company has invested so much in advertising and marketing to acquire a new customer, it seems incredible that they should be loath to invest in good call centre operations to retain that customer. Kieron Kent highlights the different approaches when he says, "At Forward Emphasis we are proving that there is an ethical way to run the business which makes profit and adds value. Some people think it is more expensive to run an ethical business. We have proved that it is not. Short term profiteering is the wrong way to run an outsourced call centre from both a business and human perspective. An ethical long term view will always add value, return investment and retain customers."
Alex Blyth is a freelance journalist writing on business and corporate responsibility. Contact him at: Alexpblyth@aol.com. This article was first published in the May 2002 issue of Ethical Corporation magazine, to which you can subscribe free at www.ethicalcorp.com. Reprinted by permission.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: I have just joined this company as Communication Manager. The one thing that is clear and that has caused a lot of tension, to the extent that a grievance committee has been formed, is that there is no TRUST between colleagues. Management is divided amongst themselves, there are "camps," and this filters down to junior staff. I sense that I will not be trusted as a manager because I am "one of them." I have done an internal audit and have submitted my recommendations (verbal) to some of the managers. They don't seem to be buying it -- kind of a "been there, done that" response. I see a crisis about to happen in one form or another: resignations, lack of focus on priorities, more division. Any suggestions?
CM: Regarding your difficult internal communications situation: trust, once broken, or if never truly established, is difficult for existing employees to repair because no one trusts anyone. Yet lack of trust undermines every aspect of an organizational activity. When I have encountered similar situations as a result of doing a vulnerability audit, I have recommended that my clients seek out a consultant who specializes in "team building." Experts in this subject have techniques for helping staff at all levels get past their current feelings and move ahead for the common good. Of course, management has to be willing to support such a program -- and if I were at such a company and they didn't support it, I'd be looking for another job.
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ABOUT THE EDITOR
Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national public relations agency specializing in crisis prevention, response & issues management. It is also the only national PR agency able to create crisis- and issues-specific websites for its clients in as little as five minutes by employing proprietary PIER System technology. Information on the firm's services can be found by Clicking Here or by calling (626) 825-3838. Information on its PIER capabilities can be found at www.crisiswebsite.com.
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