Labor and Employment Law

Social Media is Leveling Public Relations Playing Field for Disgruntled Employees

Facebook, blogs, Twitter, on-line petitions - Social media is leveling the public relations playing field.  Gone are the days when big business controlled the media.  Today, a disgruntled employee can fight back using social media.  Using these new tools, former "water cooler" complaints can literally and quickly broadcast around the globe.

The recent firing of Virginia Commonwealth University volleyball coach James Finley provides a case in point.

On December 20, 2012, VCU issued a press release announcing that its "exhaustive investigation" into the non-renewal of Coach James Finely's contract found that Coach Finley's claim of sexual orientation discrimination was unfounded.  VCU President validated not only the findings of the report but the investigation process and said, "I continue to have confidence in the process that produced the report and in Ed McLaughlin as VCU's athletic director."

Coach Finley did not agree with the findings.  Unlike, however, employees in the pre-social media world who might simply have retained an attorney and filed a lawsuit, he and his supporters are fighting back using social media.  Here are two examples of their efforts.

Facebook Page:  Reinstate VCU Volleyball Coach James Finley

Shortly after VCU issued its press release, Coach Finley posted the following statement on Facebook:

I'm obviously disappointed in the outcome of VCU's initial investigation into my discrimination complaint. I am dismayed by the poor quality of the investigative procedures followed and by numerous factual inaccuracies included in the report that appear to provide the basis for the conclusion reached. This is particularly disturbing since the report fails to address my complaint of discriminatory treatment, and the procedures followed provided me with no opportunity to respond to any of the erroneous information brought forward in the investigation to justify the action taken. In addition, I am concerned that the damage to me and my reputation from this flawed investigation is being magnified by disclosures of inaccurate information by persons associated with VCU. Despite VCU's official statements that my complaint and the investigation are confidential personnel matters, there appears to be no effort by VCU to prevent disclosure to the media of information from the report or inaccuracies contained therein by persons on VCU's payroll or under VCU's control.

I am going to take time over the holidays to review with counsel all of the options available to challenge the report and its findings. I thank all of my many friends and supporters at VCU, in the Richmond community and across the country for your outpouring of love and support, and I ask for your patience as I carefully consider all of the options available and discuss with my family the best course for us to pursue going forward."

Online Petition:  VCU President Michael Rao:  Reinstate Coach Finley!

There is also an online petition asking VCU President to "welcome Coach Finley back on campus."  The petition was created on the site that describes itself as "the world's largest petition platform, empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see."  As points out "[g]athering people behind a cause used to be difficult, requiring lots of time, money, and a complex infrastructure. But technology has made us more connected than ever."

As I write this post, the site says there are "43,067 supporters" who have signed the following petition:

Michael Rao, VCU President

We're asking you to reconsider the decision made by VCU's Athletic Director to fire Coach Finley. As a school built upon the values of inclusion and diversity, VCU has an opportunity to lead a national conversation to ensure that one's work is judged solely by their success, not by their sexual orientation or gender identity. We urge you to overturn this decision and to reinstate Coach Finley in time to usher our volleyball team into another winning season!

[Your name]


Insights for Employers

Now, perhaps more than ever, it is important that in addition to developing proper and effective EEO and anti-harassment policies, employers need to adopt effective policies and procedures for investigating workplace complaints. In today's new world, an employee who is dissatisfied with an employer's investigation into his or her concern is not limited to grousing to co-workers or quietly filing a complaint with the government or hiring a lawyer.

Smart employers recognize that it is no longer sufficient to comply simply with the minimal legal standards in responding to employee complaints.  Rather, they are working to implement policies and procedures for internal investigations that comply not only with the law but also adhere to the principles of procedural fairness. One of the key principles of procedural fairness is "voice" or the opportunity to participate in the review of the complaint.

In the VCU matter, one of Coach Finley's primary criticisms of the investigation seems to be that he was given "no opportunity to respond to any of the erroneous information brought forward."  Of course, given that the VCU investigation report has not yet been made public we have no way of evaluating for ourselves this claim.  It is worth noting, however, that the principles of procedural fairness (as well as good internal workplace investigation practice) would dictate that Coach Finley should have been provided the opportunity to have his "voice" heard before the final conclusions were reached in the investigation.

Read more articles about managing workplace conflict at Win-Win HR, hosted by Lorene Schaefer.

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  • Anonymous
    Great post! This just goes to show how powerful social media has become, and that it cannot be ignored by any business.