How not to handle a heated Facebook discussion

A story about the firing of a TV meteorologist who defended herself against a racist, insensitive Facebook remark about her hair style left me shaking my head over the lack of thinking by her former employers.

A story by Lylah M. Alphonse on Yahoo! Shine reported on the firing of Rhonda A. Lee by KTBS in Shreveport, La. It seems Lee made the mistake of defending herself against an ignorant attack. Click here to read the story.

On Oct. 1, Alphonse says a viewer posted on the station’s Facebook page: “the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. the onlt [sic] thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair . im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv.”

The Facebook user who made the comments later apologized.

Alphonse’s story shows Lee’s measured response. It seems, however, her former employer thought she was violating their unwritten social media policy. That’s right, Lee was fired for multiple violations of an unwritten policy, Alphonse reports. (Lee had previously defended herself from another online attack). The only formalization of the social media policy is a mention in an email  memo sent to station employees, Alphonse reports; the policy reportedly was first introduced during a meeting that Lee did not attend, Alphonse reports.

An online petition has been started to help Lee regain her job.

A statement by the National Association of Black Journalists says, “We encourage media companies to protect employees on official social media platforms that are used to engage news consumers. We urge managers to be more sensitive to social media comments and attacks on their employees. Many companies employ social media editors or utilize electronic systems to quickly discard offensive comments, but not all organizations do.” You can read the statement here.

It’s extremely important for a company taking disciplinary action, especially termination, to have well-documented policies and procedures. The company not only clarify duties, responsibilities and rights for employees, but such documentation helps protect the company from potential litigation. I don’t believe an emailed memo is sufficient.

And let me state a personal opinion: a person has a right to defend herself, especially if the attack is malicious and personal.

And like so many employers, the managers at KTBS do not understand how to effectively employ social media. Social media is highly interactive, with dialogue flowing from both sides: users from around the world, and company management and personnel. Traditional media like TV stations and newspapers are one-sided exchanges: information flows from the media source to the user. Some media professionals have trouble adapting to the concept that social media involves ongoing dialogue between both sides; to them, social media is one more thing to check off the list of trying to reach out to people who may not consume your traditional product (newspaper edition or TV news broadcast).

Lee handled the attack against her in a professional way, and I hope she regains her job.


Starfish and spiders as problem-solvers

A lot of business books claim to provide vital knowledge. Every so often one of these books actually delivers.

Last fall I read a fascinating book titled “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. The term “starfish” refers to leaderless organizations like Wikipedia, while “spider” refers to a company that has a traditional top-down leadership model.

I was fascinated by the concept of leaderless organizations, never having thought of Craigslist or Napster in that fashion. Although those websites had founders who administered them, their success was based on users having the right to act as co-administrators. This makes sense in hindsight – think of the popularity of television shows like “American Idol” where audience members vote to determine the contest’s winner. Realty show voting and Internet sites give everyone a voice in this age of social networking.

I’ve been revisiting “The Starfish” lately to gain new insights into the starfish concept. One chapter is devoted to hybrid organizations, or those that have aspects of both starfish (leaderless) and spiders (top-down management). The chapter mentions the work of David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Business School who developed the concept of “appreciative inquiry.”

Appreciative inquiry is used to solve problems in organizations. People from all levels of a company participate in pairs to interview one another. As the book states, a janitor may ask the CEO questions, which are provided by Cooperrider to encourage people to open up. Cooperrider’s intention is to break down the hierarchy. After the interviews conclude, participants get together to brainstorm, and every person’s idea is treated with respect. Since everyone feels they had a voice, they are more likely to buy into any plans that result from the session.

The “Starfish” authors make their case for the appreciative inquiry technique despite its sounding like a “touchy-feely” method. They note that the technique led to resolving a dispute between truckers and management at one of the world’s largest truck companies. The process also was credited with the creation of a strategic plan at the U.S. Navy.

You don’t have to view conflicts as an unavoidable part of doing business; disagreement can be healthy when it is managed effectively and channeled into creative problem-solving where everyone’s voice is heard in a respectful way. It’s only when respect is thrown out and disagreement is unmanaged that it becomes destructive conflict.

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