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I have customers that have an issue with an employee that makes political posts on social media. He is involved in a popular political activist group that many view as controversial and extreme. They will not do business with this person at all and may no longer buy from us.

He doesn't bring up this topic at work, and I would have never known he was involved in this group until I saw the posts myself. He does a great job and I have never had any issues with him at work. I have no desire to fire this person because he is doing such a great job, but I also don't want to lose customers.

How can I address this issue?

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    If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. The specific political aspect of this question is not relevant to the ability for it to be answered, any future discussion on this subject will be deleted. – enderland Aug 28 '17 at 16:10
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    Just to clarify - those posts are made from company accounts or from his/her personal accounts? are these posts made during working hours? – trailmax Aug 28 '17 at 16:16
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    @trailmax I think "He doesn't bring up this topic at work, and I would have never known he was involved in this group until I saw the posts myself." implies very strongly that this is being done from his private accounts outside of working hours. – Revetahw Aug 28 '17 at 16:24
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    How do they know which employee works on their project? How do they know the employee political views of the said employee are? Did he bring it up with them? Did they stalk him online? – ventsyv Aug 28 '17 at 16:30
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    My first question is... How does the customer even know? That would determine what I thought was best. If the employee is reaching out to the customers from his personal social media account, then he needs to stop, but if the customer is looking him up because they can, then THEY need to stop. – Taegost Aug 28 '17 at 18:43

11 Answers 11

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Obviously you should get legal advice or at least advice from an HR consultant. I think that's what should happen first.

But I think you're coming at this from the wrong side. You state repeatedly that he's a good employee. So why are you going to let a customer dictate internal policy? Unless he's an actual representative of the company, i.e. he gives speeches in the company's name or is somehow the public face of the company, I think you would be making a tragic mistake in doing anything to the employee, not as a legal matter but as a business matter.

Your company is more than the clients that it has right now. A client can't dictate what a company's employees do on their own time.

I can't stand some political movements. I really can't stand others. But as much as I can't stand them, if a customer came to me complaining about an employee's membership in one of those organizations (and the employee was good, like this one), I'd tell the customer something like "Yeah, I know. I don't agree with them either personally, but we promote free speech here at XYZ Corp".

You can't let the customer dictate these things because next you'll have a customer complaining that an employee belongs to Right to Life and they'll expect you to do something there, too. Or CAIR, which is a legal but controversial organization.

Don't make the mistake of letting a customer run your business. Bad customers are easier to replace than good employees. Talk to him and let him know that concerns have been raised and suggest that to avoid hassles he use a pseudonym, don't imply that it's required. Also tell him that as long as he doesn't promote, suggest or praise illegal or violent activity you'll back him up. I'd much rather have a loyal employee who does good work and says things I don't like in his free time than 10 customers who try to dictate my employees' lives. A line has to be drawn somewhere.

I think you're making a mistake putting this on the employee. It's the customer that's out of line.

EDITED TO ADD:

Think about this for a moment. The customer is refusing to deal with a person because of a political affiliation outside of work. He's refusing to deal with a person because of something that has nothing to do with his job. I find it little different than saying they won't work with someone because of their gender, skin color or religion (aside from the fact that it would be illegal). What if they said they wouldn't work with him because he's gay?

Or, what if he ends up quitting and the replacement belongs to Right-To-Life and another client says he won't work with someone who is an activist for that?

Lines must be drawn and if it were me and they were the only client I had, this is what I'd do. I'd talk to the employee and lay it out. I would tell him that I would back him up but that means we'd lose our big client and it could be lean for a while and he might even get laid off.

I would rather go out of business than let a customer dictate what my employees can do. But I know what else I'd do. If the customer did end up leaving, I'd make sure the media knew about it and knew how I stood up for my guy, even though I didn't agree. It could actually change things. When you're falling off a cliff, you may as well try to fly.

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    @ChristopherEstep I think this answer, best summed up, goes in line with the phrase "While I respectfully disagree with your opinion, I will defend to the death your right to have it." It's a respect thing, and if my customers are disrespectful enough to refuse to do business because of an employee's personal beliefs, then I'm not going to do business with them, period. – Der Kommissar Aug 28 '17 at 20:37
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    @Kat: as in, "I hate cyclists. They jam up my morning commute"? – souser12345 Aug 29 '17 at 6:21
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    @TimB as Hayek said "Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom." you never really defended free speech because you never really understood what it meant. When you finally comprehended it you were against it. – user1450877 Aug 29 '17 at 11:37
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    @TimB then you admit your support of free speech was predicated on a flawed understanding, sometimes lies win, sometimes emotion trumps fact. That has always been the case, these things become an even bigger danger should the government have the power to decide which opinions can be heard. Don't assume the government is on the side of facts and logic and that they have a benign agenda. Events have shown that is not the case. – user1450877 Aug 29 '17 at 11:49
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Tim B Aug 29 '17 at 11:58
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How do I address this issue?

If the employee is doing a good job, which you state they are in your question, I don't think there is anything you can do about this without exposing yourself to a serious lawsuit.

He does a great job and I have never had any issues with him at work.

On top of that, whatever political group your employee is involved in might also take action against you via social media and legal means. This could result in even more lost revenue for the company.

My suggestion here is if the business you risk losing is significant enough, have a conversation with your employee explaining the situation. You do not need to have a social media outlet to participate in activism.

Maybe they would be willing to take it down, or at the very least tone it down for the good of the company that provides the employee a means to make a living.

The other idea ( see Patricia S. comment below ) would be to suggest to the employee to use a pen-name and a avatar ( instead of actual picture of the employee ) where permitted on social media.

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    Also, perhaps suggest to the employee using a pen-name where permitted on social media. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 28 '17 at 12:39
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    @MisterPositive I feel sorry for both the manager and the employee. To say that this needs to be handled delicately is perhaps a gross understatement, but it's the best that I can manage. Examples like this are why some companies have strict policies on social media use. At best, those policies are "If you raise a stink, you're on your own" to "If you post anything that could reflect badly on us, you're out" – Retired Codger Aug 28 '17 at 13:36
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Sep 1 '17 at 5:56
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You are in an extremely unenviable position of having an employee who, while a big "plus" on the job with his performance is also bringing in negatives.

A previous employer of mine had a very strict social media policy. When I worked there, I had to curb all of my political posts and even withdrew from some message boards, just to be safe. Your company should seriously consider adopting a social media policy under "employee conduct" where it is clearly stated that any negative impact that an employee's actions on social media has on the company will be grounds for disciplinary action in order to prevent future difficulties.

For the here and now:

The first thing you must determine is whether or not the employee is speaking on behalf of the company. If he is, then it is not unreasonable to ask him to stop.

Beyond that, you can speak with your employee privately in an unofficial capacity and let him know that his social media posts are affecting the company. You don't have to mention the group he's involved in, just that you're getting blowback. Make it clear to him that you in no way are asking him to change his affiliations and that you value him as an employee but that some customers have been following him on social media and he may want to be careful

After that, it's simply a cost benefits analysis. If he's earning X an costing Y then:

if X > Y keep him

if X< Y let him go

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    When doing the cost benefit analysis, don't forget the potential cost of damaging employee morale by firing him (and the costs of losing other employees if they decide to leave). Also the potential costs of the group attacking the employer. – Martin Bonner Aug 28 '17 at 13:35
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    @MartinBonner that, and the cost of any clients who might support the group as well. Good points. – Retired Codger Aug 28 '17 at 13:37
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    The bigger picture is that removing an employee from the payroll due to politics in their spare time will remove future employees. – Ed Heal Aug 28 '17 at 18:54
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    @RichardU I'm not disagreeing with you at all... I just felt it worth pointing out that a "homebrew" social media policy is a Very Bad Idea. – Beofett Aug 28 '17 at 20:33
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    My employer's policy is that employees must make clear that they do not speak for the company. I go a step further and avoid even mentioning my employer, so that there's no chance anyone could be confused about that. And I refrain from getting into political debates where I use my real name just in case someone looks me up and finds out where I work. – Monty Harder Aug 28 '17 at 23:24
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If I am correct, this person does this in his own time. This person is not breaking the law. This person is doing a good job.

I would tell the customer you cannot do anything (I am assuming that this is in Europe).

Free speech is free speech. When you are removing the ability for an individual to lose their free speech, you are losing your ability to free speech. You are also losing creativity.

I would say to them that you cannot do anything and that they should appreciate that we live in a free world. I would rather be unemployed that pander to a customer that is undermining free speech. Also consider, you dump this employee - what is next?

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    Obligatory xkcd on why free speech is really not a valid argument: xkcd.com/1357 – David K Aug 28 '17 at 18:57
  • @DavidK I think that reference is completely invalid. It says exactly that just because you can't be fired for saying something means you have a valid argument. If I understand correctly, no one is saying any one has to read this guys posts. – drjpizzle Feb 4 at 15:44
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A simple but obvious question. Why do your customers have access to his social media activity?

If his use of social media is a key part of his job with you, then using the same social media account for his political opinions is enough to have him fired or at least discipined, in the same way as if he'd taken a company car for a weekend without telling anyone, or stolen stationery.

If his use of social media isn't part of his job, how do your customers know about his social media activities? I certainly don't have my Facebook profile hooked up to my company.

And are his views likely to affect how he treats customers? If (for example) he's pro-choice, then that opinion is not going to stop him serving customers, and if customers disagree with his opinion then that's just part of living in a democracy and your customers need to suck it up. If (for another example) he's a member of the KKK, then this will inevitably affect how he treats customers who are not white and Christian, and your customers are right to object to that. But then that'd mean he isn't "doing such a great job", and that would be a valid business reason to fire him.

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    Presumably there are only so many John Smiths in Peoria. – Casey Aug 29 '17 at 19:43
  • "Why do your customers have access to his social media activity?" - Remember the Girls Around Me app? – Denis de Bernardy Aug 30 '17 at 3:57
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    Plus one; the only answer that talks about the "issue" here, which is: why is this even an issue? – Mazura Aug 30 '17 at 12:16
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Many companies have policies relating to how employee behavior represents the company even on personal time. For instance, say your employee is a binge drinker and posts photos of himself getting black out drunk on social media. Obviously, this will reflect poorly on your organization if people saw these posts. It could affect their desire to do business with you. And it could cost you money. Therefore, the company can most likely terminate the employee (consult a lawyer) for violating company policy (namely harming the company's reputation).

Furthermore, people get canned for their personal beliefs often, just look at the recent Google debacle.

In your case, I think it's even simpler than that. Said employee has cost you business. Now it is up to you to determine if the value of the employee outweighs the cost of lost business. If current clients were disgusted enough to discontinue doing business with you, then how many clients have you lost before they even walked through the door?

As an aside, and in support of your clients, I too decide to do or not do business with companies based upon the values a particular business purports to uphold. I vote with my wallet. Politics is unfortunately serious business these days. I don't think your clients are an exceptional case.

I think you should consult a lawyer and I think you should establish a written policy that addresses how employee behavior affects the company reputation as a baseline and then go from there. I think you can try to salvage the situation if you can get the employee to agree to stop posting the controversial posts. However, if they are passionate about their beliefs they may not be willing to do so and at that point you have a decision to make: your employee or your bottom line.

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    I don't think the Google thing is a fair comparison, that was someone actually communicating inside the company, on the clock. Not in their spare time, on social media. – Erik Aug 28 '17 at 19:44
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    "Furthermore, people get canned for their personal beliefs often, just look at the recent Google debacle." You might also want to consider that that employee is now planning to sue Google. – reirab Aug 31 '17 at 19:36
  • Bottom line is that any companie's purpose is to turn a profit for its owner or shareholders, not to make political statements. If an employees behavior curtails that objective, then it is the manager's duty to the owner or shareholders to put an end to that behavior. The rest is a matter of circumstances dictating whether or not legal action or advise is required. – hlecuanda Aug 31 '17 at 23:56
  • @hlecuanda, That may have been true in the past but is no longer the case. Companies are increasingly taking/advocating/pushing political positions despite losing revenue because of it. – James Sep 1 '17 at 0:25
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I strongly agree with Christopher's answer, but also wanted to point out an option to consider that I haven't seen mentioned yet: You could ask the employee to make his political posts only visible to his friends. Many social media platforms allow you to control who can see your posts. Setting his posts to only be visible to his friends and not adding your customers as his friends allows him to continue to engage in his political speech on his own time while not being as likely to cause problems with your customers who may disagree with his views going forward.

Of course, I would not demand that he do this, but only ask him to consider it. It's possible that the employee didn't realize that this may be possible with the social media platform he's using and he may be fine with it. Of course, if he isn't, that's his call. And, of course, some social media platforms may not have this option.

And, as Christopher suggested, I'd advise talking to an employment lawyer about this first to make sure that this request is legal in your jurisdiction before making it. It seems like the suggestion should probably be legal to me, but I am not a lawyer.

  • It is not the employers problem, but this may put the employee into a echo chamber. So now they will be amplifying their points of view. Which may not be the best thing for them. (Any echo chamber is generally unhealthy in the long run IMHO) – DarcyThomas Sep 3 '17 at 0:43
  • @DarcyThomas That's a fair point to consider, though whether one is posting into an echo chamber or not will mostly be a function of the diversity of their friends in either situation. If they only have friends of their same ideology, then they're mostly going to be posting into an echo chamber anyway. On the flip side, if they have a diverse group of friends, then making their posts only visible to friends won't result in much of an echo chamber effect. – reirab Sep 3 '17 at 4:25
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Unfortunately there is only one answer here

Business is business is business

Let's see the situation from the market's point of view. Bob works for Acme who has a contract with Initech. Initech does not agre with Bob's personal issues, could they be 1) political ideas, 2) religious faith, 3) affiliation to labour associations, 4) health status or 5) sexual habits/orientation. I chose the above 5 to match my country's privacy regulator for the definition of "hypersensitive personal information".

Initech is basically bullying Acme for letting Bob out or more in general to pressure behaviour against Bob, who for instance is not involved in any criminal activities. This is also called lobbying, under some circumstances.

Unless Initech is subject to a religious regulation (since few religious laws exists around the world) so that not only companies must comply with ethical/moral rules dictated by law, but must also demand their customers/suppliers chain to comply with same rules, Initech is simply attempting to show force against Acme to take economic advantage. Porter depicts both the customer's and the supplier's contract force among the five.

There are two edge cases:

  • Acme is a small company with Initech being their biggest customer
  • Acme is a large enterprise with Initech being only one small customer like any

The OP's concern suggests the first, or a middle case which is between these extreme bounds. In fact, any company in the second edge case is a suicide customer if they can't replace their supplier easily, and surely won't do any damage to Acme. Actually trying to bull someone bigger than you only result in additional damage to yourself.

So I assume that the customer has a lot of economical power over Acme. Acme, which to remind is Bob's employer, has very few options in this case. This specific case should be escalated to the top as soon as possible keeping in mind that we are talking about an individual's own future and his right to freedom of thought. Top management must act to define a company policy valid for the future and applied since this very first case.

Firing the employee will likely result in legal consequences, and there is the risk that people supporting Bob's ideas will spread the word about Acme being discriminatory, adding reputation consequences over the existing. This is especially true if Acme works in the B2C market and risks more reputational damage than B2B companies.

Standing on Bob's side Defending Bob's right of speech is a civil duty, but while may or may not increase Acme's reputation, it will surely cause an economic damage and a stress for the workforce. Bob risks to be "marked" by coworkers as who caused a big customer loss.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson to learn for everyone. Market out there is aggressive, sometimes criminal. Who thinks that only mafias come with a knife to the neck of an enterpreneur is wrong. Political affairs are everywhere. Evil customers and suppliers seeking the worst excuse to act power on their counterparts are behind the corner.

There is no simple answer. I gave an answer but don't claim the accepted answer flag, because there is none. All answers in this thread are objectionable, including both the downvoted answer that suggests to let Bob go (by Mehrdad) or the one to support Bob and confront Initech (by Ed Heal).

I also wanted to highlight that social media policies are widely used by companies but have a different scope. They normally affect the ability for an employee to present himself/herself as an employee of Acme by either prohibiting such advertising or by requiring that any statement must be approved by the company first. Normally bloggers would use a disclaimer like "The opinions and information provided in this site are not to be intended as the official opinion of the Compant nor they are approved/reviewed by it".

Edit

It is unclear whether Initech simply wants not to deal with Bob (e.g. as sales representative, consultant) or really want Bob to be let go. The second smells really unbelievable to my eyes, as I never seen even the most ultra-Catholic company based in Vatican City complain for a supplier representative that is either homosexual or in a de-facto family (namely has children without getting married).

Normally these companies will only request to replace their representative, in which case it could be a deal to move Bob to another customer by explaining the situation and letting him post any licit content on social media. In this case:

  • Acme does not lose business
  • Acme can cover up the entire stuff easily
  • Acme shows weakness to Initech, which in the future may go against them
  • Bob keeps his work and possibly respect from workforce
  • since few religious laws exists around the world I guess you have not been to the middle east, for example – Ed Heal Sep 2 '17 at 19:52
  • I have not been there yet, but I did not want to cite one middle east state in particular as an example to keep generic. Is something wrong with my example? Don't certain regulations require you and your supply chain to comply to moral/ethical/relugious principles? – usr-local-ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ Sep 2 '17 at 19:57
  • "...because there is none. All answers in this thread are objectionable..." In the end, ACME has to decide for one way or another, it cannot not decide. I wonder what you mean by "there is no solution"? Maybe that there is a dilemma and all answers are equally bad? From a pure morale point of view it's probably better to let the customers go? – Trilarion Sep 3 '17 at 11:56
  • There is no win-win solution. Someone has to suffer loss – usr-local-ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ Sep 4 '17 at 7:24
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Some states protect employees from political coercion by employers. The California Labor Code section on Political Affiliations, for example, reads (in part):

  1. No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.

In these states, if you fire an employee for his/her political activity, you run a very substantial risk of a) being sued, and b) losing.

1

Adding my personal point of view, as I didn't see it covered in the other answers.

My view is that it's up to you. If the social media behavior is something you're ok to defend and stand up against customers, even if they leave, do that. If not, don't do it and take it up to your employee. Like others have said, customers can have a range of reasons what they dislike and in general you want to protect your good employee. However, if the clients are influential, you have to consider that they might put you out of business if they refuse to do business with you. Also, if you keep on hitting to this issue, you have to think is the cause your employer fights for something you are also prepared to fight for. Depending on the cause and social media behavior, I think for everyone of us there are things we will fight for and things we don't want to.

Since you are asking what you can do about this issue:

  • decide what you think about the subject: is it something you are also ready to fight for? Take into account how much business impact it really has: do you have a business with thousands of clients and few leaving, or do you have a business with only 5 important clients which have issues.
  • if not, discuss with the employee about the situation, since it is hurting your business. You have the option of letting him go but I would discuss with the employee involved, first.
  • if yes, think up an explanation for the clients. It might be along the lines of free speech, or you can also explain that there are some values the business represents and the social media behavior is in line with those values.
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(I am not a lawyer and do not know if this is legal. This is not legal advice.)

You have a lot more options than people realize. Here's what I would do:

  1. I'd explain the situation to the employee.

  2. I'd ask him if he'd be willing to find another job, with my help if he desires.

  3. I would guarantee to him that he could come back to this job within N months of losing his next job if we are still in business at that point, for some reasonable N.

  4. If he is willing, then I'd help him find another job and provide a great recommendation.

  5. If he is not willing, then I would either:

    a. Institute a no-social-media policy as appropriate if this is legal in my jurisdiction, or

    b. Lay him off with a reasonable severance pay to let him find another job if this is legal, or

    c. If neither of the above is legal, I would just pay him but ask him to do something not-customer-facing at work. Even if this means having him play Minesweeper all day.

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    while i would like being paid for playing Minesweeper all day long... I don't like your approach to this kind of situation... I would not want to be your employee... Read this for a good solution – Mischa Aug 29 '17 at 14:10
  • @MischaBehrend: The problem with "I would not want to be your employee" is that the alternative here I'm avoiding here is that you lose the business here and nobody will be an employee. At least letting him do something non-customer-facing would prevent that. I've already commented under that answer -- that guy would rather go out of business than do something about this, and most people are not like that. – Mehrdad Aug 29 '17 at 18:38
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    @Mehrdad Going out of business and acquiescing to stupid demands from customers are different things. Regardless of how your business operates, you can never satisfy everyone. If your customers are looking up information about your employees personal views on their personal social media, then demanding you reprimand them for it; those customers are acting extremely entitled. By folding to their demands, you may signal to them that you are easily manipulated. You should be the professional and not let personal irrelevant things effect employment status. – JMac Aug 30 '17 at 11:10

protected by Chris E Aug 29 '17 at 15:45

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