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KPMG, Apple, BrewDog: How should HR handle a media storm?

Several private companies have found themselves at the eye of their own media storms this year as employees have taken to the press or social media to air concerns about company culture.

Earlier this month former Apple employees organised under the #AppleToo campaign  after reportedly feeling frustrated at the company’s lack of action against employee discrimination.

This followed the trend of the Punks with Purpose campaigners who wrote an open letter to their former employer BrewDog alleging the company promoted a toxic work culture.

Earlier this year KPMG UK chair Bill Michael resigned after telling staff to "stop moaning" about COVID-19. 

The professional services firm has now begun urging employees to use its internal whistleblowing process to air concerns rather than heading to the press.

For Clare Spiers, founder of HR consultancy People Boost, this apparent trend for publicly naming and shaming employers has been exacerbated by the events of the pandemic.

She told HR magazine: “Employees are thinking not about their work experience but their life experience. Their identity matters. Gone are the days where life, work, our purpose and identity are separated.”

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Failing to recognise employees’ individuality is where organisations are going wrong, Spiers argued.

She said: “Organisations, particularly leaders, that rely on old patterns, working to rule and applying a one size fits all approach leave themselves open to an employee revolt.”  

The best immediate reaction for leaders and HR in the event of a complaints, Spiers advised, is to genuinely listen to those who are raising concerns. Longer term, she said, it’s then a question of transforming culture.

“The worst thing HR can do now is to wade in 'to do the fixing'. Each leader is accountable for their team members,” Spiers said.

“HR’s role is to hold leaders accountable to the values of the organisation, driving their direct connection with their team so that they understand the individuals; letting them know they can ask their HR partners for support if they are uncertain what to do.”

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, also suggested HR can help to flip the conversation.

She said: “Turning instances of behaviour that does not meet the mark into learning opportunities, sparking debate and training within the organisation about its core values will help staff to learn and grow together.”

A whistleblowing system like the one KPMG has in place is a good start Palmer added, however she said it should not merely be used a box ticked.

“It should be part of an overall culture within the organisation that encourages people to come forward with concerns, and raise them as and when they happen,” she said.

“This may be via a whistleblowing system, but it could also be within employee forums, during senior management Q&A sessions, or raising them directly with a manager to be dealt with.”