Unintended consequences of employer shaming
By SUNIRA CHAUDHRI
Shaming companies online can have unintended consequences.
Social media arms employees with special artillery like no other; the ability to tear down a misbehaving employer with a click of a button.
Several vocalists of the Sheraton Caldwell orchestra did just that, following a bungled, tone deaf email allegedly sent to members by the organization days earlier that signalled the orchestra will feature “singers who are fit & slim” and a request that those who aren’t will “refrain from using tight-fitting dresses and use loose (less physically-revealing, less physically-accentuating) dresses instead.”
The email was posted online by at least one member of the volunteer orchestra, shared hundreds of times over Facebook, following which the orchestra’s board resigned, the group’s funding ended and the orchestra closed its doors. I reckon none of those that took their concerns online ever considered the drastic consequences.
Sheraton Caldwell maintains it is a volunteer program, but the takeaway is the same. On the cusp of a minimum wage increase in Ontario, small businesses must be propped up, by everyone, not widely ostracized following a PR blunder. The costs associated with the public clobbering Sheraton received is unquantifiable. Most small businesses would consider themselves just as hopeless and incapable of rebounding in the face of a publicized employee mutiny.
The scope of social media can’t be underestimated. Employees should know the power they wield and use it judiciously. A deleterious, scathing online post about a company can seal its fate, much like Sheraton Caldwell. That isn’t good for volunteers, for employees or for the economy.
While employees should show greater care with their social media exploits, it would have been painfully easy for the orchestra’s management to get it right. The email isn’t just politically incorrect, it is a walking, talking human rights complaint waiting to happen, forever memorialized online. It seemed to target women specifically and body weight, raising discrimination red flags based on gender and other protected grounds.
If Sheraton Caldwell sought advice, as it should have, before distributing the email, the only place a lawyer would have sent it to was the trash bin. Instead, the orchestra should have mandated a consistent dress code, which is wholly legal. There is nothing inherently discriminatory in mandating what employees should wear, how they style their hair, what jewelry they wear and even direction on how or if makeup should be worn.
Most employees will decide if the dress code suits their personal style and preferences. If it doesn’t, they can find another job.
The case of Sheraton Caldwell was a public relations nightmare turned online war. Employees should be careful to publicly rebuke a company because once the genie is out of the bottle the consequences will be fast and often fierce.