HR under fire – how can you put out the flames? Part one

HR has found itself under the bad publicity spotlight recently, but how can the department deal with unfavourable press and rebuild afterwards?

HR under fire – how can you put out the flames? Part one

From the BBC scandal to KFC’s disabled workers axing debacle, HR has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The department has come in for some bad press thanks to the BBC HR director signing off controversial severance payments and allegedly using the term “sweetener”, while in New Zealand revelations by the Herald on Sunday of fast food giant KFC’s restructures that forced out staff with disabilities outraged many – a decision that was ultimately reversed after the backlash.

In Australia, child care provider Camp Australia was made to pay current and former staff more than $2.6 million in underpaid wages. Organisations also came into the firing line when a study by the Fair Work Commission earlier this year revealed many Australian employers continue to pay ‘go-away’ money to terminated employees to avoid arbitration.

So in a climate where social media makes organisational mistakes more visible how can HR work through bad publicity and restore confidence and trust afterwards?

First up honesty is the best policy, Shaun McCarthy, Director and Chairman of consultant firm Human Synergistics Australia & New Zealand told HC.

You need to adapt quickly to bad publicity, McCarthy said, and being open and honest as legally possible about the situation is important.

“It’s quite possible the decision will be made without total information and therefore a mistake will be made which is where you’ve just got to be honest – you can’t hide anything today with social media. It’s basically about fessing up and fixing up,” he said.

McCarthy recommends three steps – first apologise to those involved, two admit a mistake was made and three rectify it.

Elizabeth Howells, organisational psychologist and Director of PeopleCentric, added that HR teams positioned differently in different organisations as well as level of involvement will mean the effect of the impact will differ but communication is a must.

Informing staff is necessary as then guidance can be given on what they can say about the situation to anyone enquiring. Howells calls this “helping with FAQs” – by telling staff what happened, what the company line is, and what sort of responses they can go to can stop them from saying the wrong thing on social media.

Debriefing staff is also important when it comes to rebuilding confidence and trust to the HR department – a lack of information will only allow mistrust to grow.

“Where you can say why the decision was made, what was wrong with the decision in terms of the impact on people and therefore what the organisation has learnt from that and what they need to do differently,” McCarthy said.

Howells agrees adding, “[Have] open communication within the company, talking about what happened, what are some of the natural feelings [employees] might have to that and here are some avenues of support or how to talk about it.”


Sometimes bad publicity can lead to calls for the person responsible to be axed from their position. But in some situations, McCarthy said the calls should be ignored.

“People are not hired and fired by popular opinion, they are hired and fired on the basis of their capabilities and their performance and everybody makes a mistake,” he said. “As soon as you punish somebody too much at an organisation for making a mistake you’re beginning to develop a blame culture.”

This can lead to a fear making mistakes being installed in the company. McCarthy calls this a perfectionistic culture where an organisation emphasises never making a mistake.  He refers to a research project carried out in New Zealand on 24 manufacturing companies around the country showed that the more they had a perfectionistic culture the more mistakes they made. In this type of culture people do not admit to their mistakes which can mean instead of being picked up internally it’s discovered externally.

Therefore, McCarthy concludes, it would not be advisable to fire something purely on the calls of the public as it sends out the wrong message to the rest of the company.

However, it pays not to ignore it either Howells adds.

“That’s where it comes together in terms of that trust and communication to come back and say what does this mean? Why are people saying that?” she said. “Sometimes it’s good to bring it up so it’s not burying it or creating gossip around it.”

Keep an eye on Wednesday for more advice on how to cope with bad publicity.


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