Most employees get one chance to air their distaste toward their company’s management, culture and vision without fear of reappraisal: The exit interview.
To discuss the reasons behind his exit from the multi-billion dollar business that is the British monarchy, Prince Harry has penned a memoir, Spare. He has also sat down with Netflix, Oprah Winfrey, CBS and ITV – at times with his wife, Meghan Markle – to unpick his grievances with “the Firm”.
While the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s situation are undoubtedly unique, the etiquette of speaking out against a former employer is not.
If you want an example of a scorned former employee, just scroll through Glassdoor, the website where current and former staff anonymously review companies.
Coming forward has serious consequences
So what is the correct etiquette of speaking out against your old paymasters?
“Most people would never speak out publicly about their former employers. They may discuss their issues with close friends, family members or a trusted confidant – but few will talk about their experience publicly,” says Ian MacRae, workplace psychologist and author of Myths of Work.
When an employee, or in this situation Prince Harry, does come forward with allegations against a former employer it’s usually their last resort. While they are free to speak up without the risk of being fired, it can still have serious consequences on their own reputation, career prospect and legal standing.
As well as protecting their own public image, MacRae says that people who leave toxic environments, “often feel guilty about the people they left behind” so opt to stay silent.
“Workers often feel too afraid of repercussions to speak out while employed by a firm, but freer to speak up once they’ve left,” echoes Tariq Khwaja, reputation management consultant at TK Associates.
“This may even happen months or years later if triggered by hearing of similar misdemeanors recurring – or if the aggrieved ex-staff member is galvanized by others coming forward,” he adds while pointing to the open letter written by former BrewDog workers, alleging the Scottish beer maker had a toxic “growth, at all costs” culture.
And while for most people, time is a healer of all wounds, for some it can provide perspective. “People who leave the most psychologically unhealthy workplaces often say they don’t realize how bad things were until they’ve experienced a more healthy and productive working environment,” MacRae adds.
So businesses mustn’t write off accusations that are made against them long after a former staffer’s exit interview.
To stay silent, or to set the record straight?
The Royal family’s infamous communications strategy is “never complain, never explain.” But that isn’t always the right course of action for corporations facing negative public comments.
Glassdoor’s career trend expert, Jill Cotton says that companies should first assess how indicative of the company behavior the comments are before deciding whether to stay silent or set the record straight.
“The feedback is often honest as the person no longer relies on you for their livelihood,” she says. If that’s the case then, it’s often best for firms to put their hands up, learn and actively make changes in the company to avoid similar complaints popping up again.
“If the negative comments aren’t reflective of the company, a strong employer brand will help you ride out the storm,” she adds.
Unfortunately, whether or not complaints are true, the scale at which they’ve been made might warrant a response from the company in question.
Tim Maltin, Managing Partner at the litigation firm Maltin PR says that “corporates should ask themselves how strong their position and argument is, and weigh this against the audience size which has seen the previously published comments”. From there, businesses can decide whether a containment strategy is needed.
“At present, the Royal Family is staying silent and this is often the best policy. Corporates in a similar situation may be well advised to carry on as usual but make the media weather with new, positive stories, unconnected to the previously damaging material,” he adds.
Ultimately, employers cannot expect workers to stay silent about their experiences after leaving their firm.
In the short term, employers can take back control of the narrative and course correct, but prevention is always better than cure.
Really, the only way to ensure that workers are leaving positive reviews is to listen and look after them while they’re still employed by the firm.
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