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Living Dangerously in the Shadow of Ghomeshi

Organizations — in both their internal and externals worlds — can be hit by shrapnel from an employee’s private indiscretions. Here’s what they can do to limit the damage

The Essentials

As has been made painfully clear this past year, what you do in your private life can have major repercussions on your employer’s public life. When an employee’s dirty laundry is aired, colleagues can shut down and corporate reputations can suffer. Kate Rowbotham, adjunct assistant professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Organizational Behaviour at Queen’s School of Business, has studied the issue. She talked to QSB Insight after her presentation to the Business Forecast Luncheon about why sketchy private behaviour leaves an outsized impression, how social media amplifies the organizational challenge, and how a strong corporate value system is the best antidote of all.

Video Highlights

0:12     Do an employee’s actions outside of work actually matter to an organization? The answer is yes, for a couple of reasons. First, what employees do outside of work isn’t a secret any longer. Most people know what co-workers are doing when they’re not at work and form judgements based on that. And when you look at what actually happens in the workplace, you see co-workers being less willing to trust or help colleagues who are doing questionable things in their private time.

1:34     According to research dating to the 1960s, negative behaviours are seen as more diagnostic than positive behaviours. That’s because we expect people to engage in positive behaviours. When we engage in negative behaviours, we fail to meet expectations so it becomes much more telling of our character.

3:06     The social media angle has several dimensions. First, behaviours that years ago would go unnoticed or quickly forgotten are now broadcast over social media. The other dimension is that social media use itself becomes the undesirable behaviour outside of work. Off-duty employees often are using social media in ways that may not reflect well on the organization. It used to be that your ideas were yours alone and didn’t reflect on the organization. The reality is there are larger reputational impacts both for the employee and the firm.

4:20     Research that Rowbotham has done on Canadian arbitration cases shows that most firms disciplining employees for off-duty conduct cite reputational impact as the reason. The challenge is proving reputational damage. “I think what we’ll see moving forward is the proliferation of social media actually becoming the indication of impact.”

5:48     The advice to employees is to be mindful of how your private behaviour may reflect your employer. If there are potential larger reputational issues, be upfront with the organization and work together to mitigate the impact. At the individual level, you need to take ownership.

6:30     The advice for organizations is to not ignore the issue but to set expectations early, at the hiring stage, with respect to acceptable behaviour inside and outside the office. A moral clause can be an effective legal tool but more important is establishing and communicating organizational values — this is what we stand for — and then have leaders role model those values. “Given what we’ve seen this year, in the cases of Rob Ford and particularly Jian Ghomeshi, is that there is a recognition organizations need to do something.”

Interview by Alan Morantz