Truckload of Trouble
ORGANIZATIONAL REPUTATION AND POLITICAL CONTROVERSY
In mid-February 2022, a data breach resulted in the online publication of the names of individuals and businesses that have donated money or supplies to the protest occupation at Ottawa (and perhaps elsewhere). The donor list is being released in pieces online.
Public opinion polls show only minority support for "the convoy." Antipathy is particularly intense in the most directly targeted places, like Ottawa. The release of the donation records has already triggered embarrassment for some companies. "Cancellation" and boycotts will likely target donor organizations.
How do you protect your organization? If your company donated support, and experiences blowback, you will want to consider PR efforts. If an employee donated and has implicated your organization by doing so, what are the options?
Published donation records name individuals, and sometimes, identify their employers. This will cause embarrassment to some organizations. We urge organizations not to leap to decisions about this, but to assess how bad the harm really is, before acting.
An initial consideration is that the individual donors did not plan or expect to be publicized as supporting the cause. They had an expectation of privacy that has been lost due to the hack of the GoSendMe site. In assessing whether anyone has been reckless with your company's reputation, that should be kept in mind.
Freedom of Speech Concerns
Under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, every individual Canadian's right of free expression is protected (within limits) from government interference. However, free expression is not protected from private interference (the Charter does not apply to non-government actors). Most organizations have a legitimate interest in not being damaged by the public statements of their personnel and have a legal right to protect that interest.
For example, the LAWatWORK standard contract contains terms specifically addressing embarrassing or damaging actions or speech by employees. That is a reasonable term of an employment or contractor relationship.
Not every situation of embarrassment warrants action. Your position on this may be simply that people are entitled to their own opinions, and that has no effect on your organization's effectiveness. That becomes a more difficult posture to adopt, however, if there is a clear conflict between the opinions and your organization's goals or customers.
The unexpected publication of an employee's beliefs or associations is unusual. When can it be an organization's concern? These are the most serious circumstances:
If the donor is a board member or senior executive, the donation could imply that the organization supports the cause.
Similarly, any employee whose position is to communicate on-behalf of the organization, might cause similar reputational damage.
Third, if your organization's mission is very different from that of "the cause" there could be very specific, acute reputational damage with key clients or stakeholders. You have to consider what your clients or customers expect and whether they could be embarrassed through association with you, in the circumstances.
In those cases, the organization may contemplate action to disassociate itself from the individual's beliefs. It could be a caution, discipline or in some cases termination. Whether the facts would constitute "cause" would depend on the employment agreement and how badly the news really injures the company's interests. As a rule, cause is hard to prove; any termination in these circumstances could lead to a costly dispute with the individual.
If the individual is not an executive, director or public representative of the organization, the donation may be embarrassing but not warrant termination, particularly since the person never expected it to be published. It's important to remember that in any case, your organization can distance itself from any such donation, by using your own online persona and other means, to disavow a connection.
Suppliers who are donors
It's possible that one your supplier firms may be named as a donor to the convoy. Here, the problem is less likely to be damage to your company's reputation. Instead, the issue will be whether you still want to send your business to the donor firm.
It is highly unlikely that a provider contract can be severed summarily (with no notice) for reputational damage reasons. That would be rare and unique kind of arrangement. As with any supplier arrangement, there is usually a contract and/or established practices for giving notice. If you believe action is necessary, check those contractual terms before making a decision to fire a supplier.