Friday, March 16, 2012

Your Brand and Employees' Repugnant Hobbies: On Delta Air Lines and Dead Polar Bears

Delta Air Lines is facing an organized effort to embarrass the company for one employee's loathsome but legal behavior. The situation once again demonstrates how "transparency" can come in unexpected, unwelcome, uncontrollable and intractable ways.

First, here is the story: Michele Leqve, in a blog post entitled "Mission Accomplished," recounts how she killed a polar bear with a bow and arrow. As an animal lover, I find her tale distasteful. She unleashes dogs to chase and exhaust the animal, tracks it down and shoots the bear with three arrows to end its life.

Michele Leqve and her polar bear -
© 2000 - 2009 WomenHunters™
As the amazing animal perishes at her own hand, Leqve is--get this--overcome with "amazement at the beauty of the bear." I was not there, but I am going to go out on a limb and guess the polar bear was even more beautiful moments earlier when it was alive, not bleeding with three of Leqve's arrows piercing its heart.

I am not the only one disturbed by Leqve's pride in killing an animal whose species is considered Threatened and Vulnerable. A Change.org petition posted two days ago has collected over 5,000 signatures. Animal defenders have taken to blogs to criticize Leqve and promote the petition.

While I find it nauseating, Leqve apparently has the right to kill polar bears. And people have the right to criticize her and post petitions. I am less comfortable, however, with the way many are tying Leqve's actions to her employer, Delta Air Lines.

The Change.org petition is not targeted at Leqve or the site on which she blogs her brave hunting exploits--it targets Delta Air Lines. Why? Because Leqve is an employee of Delta. There is no evidence Delta supported the hunt in any way, nor does Leqve mention her employer on her blog. Incensed animal lovers discovered the connection by turning to LinkedIn in search of information about Leqve.

The Change.org petition doesn't demand any actions of Delta, so I am not entirely sure what petitioners believe the airline should do about the situation. Should Leqve be fired for this legal act? Should Delta request she cease her legal hunting or blogging activities?

Flipping this situation 180 degrees, I wonder if the petitioners want their employers monitoring employees' recreational habits. Would the bloggers currently targeting Delta submit to an evaluation from their employers assessing how workers' personal activities fit with brand and corporate messaging? Of course, almost all employers have some form of employment agreement or policies that prohibit certain activities, such as ones that create a conflict of interest or violate laws, but does anyone really want their bosses reviewing and approving (or rejecting) activities that fall within existing laws?

With greater transparency and availability of tools for social action, we are not likely to see this sort of activity slacken. Employers are going to have to be prepared to deal with criticism of employees' after-work actions. What can an employer do in such situations? There are no clear cut best practices, and every situation will need to be evaluated independently.

For the most part, it is probably best to do nothing unless absolutely necessary. Most customers and prospects will understand that the company cannot be held accountable for employees' legal after-work activities. And, while it is difficult to silently observe mounting criticism, it is helpful to remember that most social media "crises" have a very brief half-life. Should criticism of an employee mount within a brand's Facebook page, it may be necessary to make a simple statement noting that employees' personal activities cannot be discussed in public communication channels.

Despite my strong personal feelings about Leqve's actions, I did not sign the Change.org petition. I simply do not believe it is Delta's job to insert themselves into employees' private lives. I hope you agree, but if not, please do not complain to my employer!

4 comments:

Tom Snyder said...

I've never been a fan of that kind of stuff. I have a friend who hunts for sport and I always find it a bit sad to see dead mounted animals in his house.

But what troubles me more is the digital version of the mob mentality, and the new found power for people with nothing more than a strong opinion and an internet connection to abandon civility and wage previously unheard of overreaching and damaging personal attacks.

I've always contended that power can be an aphrodisiac, and when misused becomes tantamount to rape. We've seen it with dictators and politicians, and now also with ideological movements. If people can't get others to agree with them, vile vicious arguments in blog comment sections are no longer enough. Opponents must be punished... and with tactics like this that punishment can now extend to more than just a very public disagreement, but to do damage to their career, their livelihood, their ability to support their family, and in the case of a few of the posts in the comment section of that petition site, to kill her in the same fashion as she killed the bear.

The event causing the rucous happend 6 years ago. I suspect that this woman was employed by Northwest Airlines even before that. For this to suddenly become an issue seems like to employ the same type of hunting-for-sport tactics. "I have a weapon... now I need to go find something to kill."

Sad and troubling times and I fear for how it will end.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately, there are really only so many ways to protest, indicate yr. displeasure and disgust, w/ this.
if, by signing the change.org petition, we do "damage to [her] career, is that in any commensurate w/ the "damage" done to the bear?

Ferguson_C said...

To Augie's point, this will lead to more monitoring of employees by companies looking to protect their brands. If you're a high-ranking executive, then I think you do have to accept that your actions reflect on the brand. But I'm uncomfortable with that standard being pushed to 'typical' employees.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Tom, I agree, this is troubling--but unavoidable. This is yet another example of how we have not yet scratched the surface of how social media will impact society, employment, brand development, reputation management, law, etc.

Unknown, I still content you do NOT want your bosses judging your activities. It sounds right now because you hate Leqve, but it won't sound at all right if you're tapped on the shoulder and shown the door because, for example, you publically criticized Delta, who happens (theoretically) to be your company's contracted and preferred travel vendor.

Chris, should we really hold executives to a different standard? Do they give up rights of free speech by getting promoted? I agree this is a much more sensitive issue, but I hope society does not gravitate to the idea that business leaders have less right to be passionate, open communicators than do others.