Toxic farewell a signal to "face" concerns

Date: 13 October, 2011

by Greg Burchell

A former employee of Whole Foods Market in Toronto who posted a tirade online blasting his ex-employer was not building the most positive foundation for future job opportunities, workplace health experts suggest.

But the 2,000-word manifesto may have a silver lining, at least for Whole Foods, if company officials view the observations, comments and even criticisms as early warnings that may require both review and response.

The employee launched the written offensive against what he alleges are numerous hypocrisies between how the green-friendly grocer presents itself and how it actually conducts business. The attack, which also included barbs aimed at co-workers, went viral shortly after it was posted.

Instances of employees taking to the Internet and social media to air their grievances are becoming more common, says Shelly Bischoff, president of Ptolemy & Associates Inc., a health and wellness consultancy in Calgary. Why? Ptolemy attributes this brazen behaviour to the expectation that there will be no retribution.

When an employee waxes venomously online, companies would be well-advised not to convince themselves the angry display is just an isolated incident. These actions should serve as a signal that there could be a general morale problem.

"People aren't walking around with a neon sign on their forehead saying, 'I'm part of an organization that has poor morale,'" says Ptolemy. Rather than seek retribution after the fact, companies should encourage open dialog with employees to pinpoint what caused the incident in the first place and work toward creating a more positive working environment, Ptolemy says.

"The first step is having the individual's boss or supervisor ask the individual what's going on," says Mike Gooley, the Toronto-based regional vice-president of Robert Half Canada, an international staffing firm. "If you have those meetings more regularly, you'll get more honest feedback because you'll open a rapport with the employees," Gooley advises.

A 2010 Ipsos survey found that company culture has the greatest impact on morale, 35 per cent; employee productivity, 22 per cent; and job satisfaction, 17 per cent. Employees under 35 are most likely to report that company culture has the biggest impact on job satisfaction.

Once a frustrated employee has sounded the proverbial emergency alarm, an exit interview may be too late, Gooley says. But it is not too late, generally, to make use of exit interviews to identify why people are choosing to leave, he adds.

"You want to make sure other valued team members don't leave the company," Gooley says, adding that exit interviews can give a worker a private place to vent, hopefully extinguishing any temptation to get fired up on Twitter or Facebook.

Whole Foods and the co-workers mentioned by name in the tirade could sue for defamation, says Soma Ray-Ellis, co-chair of the employment and labour group at Himelfarb Proszanski LLP in Toronto. The company could also sue for breach of confidentiality and loyalty, "which an employee owes to an employer even after a resignation or termination."

But lawsuits are not often the preferred course of action. Airing a company's dirty laundry through a lawsuit can create more damage. "Sometimes it's better to let something like this die down," Ray-Ellis advises.

In the age of instant information dissemination, a company that cares about its image should be investing in employee satisfaction. "If you've got toxicity inside the human capacity, all the rest of it doesn't matter," Gooley argues.

Greg Burchell is editorial assistant of OHS Canada

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