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Will an Employee’s Viral Rant Hurt Your Brand?

It is difficult to know when hiring someone if their outburst will go viral. And if an “epic outburst” of a high-ranking employee does go viral, how will it reflect on your business?

A Harvard Assistant Professor took a small restaurant to task for a slight overcharge. Since Harvard is such a household name, most news outlets have used the brand name far more than the Assistant Professor’s actual name. Some have called this “The most Harvard thing ever”, but is that really a good thing? Harvard has cultivated a certain brand, and being stuffy and pretentious is part of it. But few companies and brands have enough of a reputation to handle having a pushy nitwit who threatens legal action over $4 in the public spotlight.

Even though this news item might somewhat fit with the brand, that doesn’t mean the public will react favorably. As twitter user David Powell notes, “If Ben Edelman is reflective of the Harvard staff, they should be ashamed. Total loser.”

In the moment, it’s often hard to know where the line between petty and pretentions is, but it is clear that many people have noticed Mr. Edelman has blatantly crossed from pretentious to petty.

This sentiment is reflected in many major news sites:

  • Boston.com: “Ben Edelman, Harvard Business School Professor, Goes to War over $4 Worth of Chinese Food”
  • Time.com: “A Harvard Professor Launched an Epic Rant Over an Extra $4 on his Chinese Takeout Bill”
  • NYMag.com: “Harvard Business School Professor Fails to Bully Chinese Restaurant Into Giving Him $12”
  • Other sources similarly used terms like harass, bully, feud, rant, and rage. They made sure to use the employer’s name, Harvard, and almost all referenced the pathetically small amount of $4 to $12. With a handful of words, these leading media sources pointed out the privilege, classism, antagonism, and pettiness that makes readers quick to pick a side—and it’s never on the side of the privileged.
  • Of course, one of the only sites on his side is Business Insider, with “Stop Hating on the Harvard Professor Who Complained about Overpaying for Chinese Food—He Has a Good Point”

And Mr. Edelman actually does have a point. After all, the mistake of not updating the prices on the website has resulted in a difference of about $1 per item. Such a mistake is something that works in the restaurant’s favor, and is only a minor inconvenience to customers.

It could be an oversight. Running a small business can be overwhelming, and to  use a restaurant-appropriate phrase, some matters can end up on the back burner. At that point, they can be forgotten until a customer brings it up.

The restaurant owner actually should have simply done the refund once the first email was received. But at this point, it doesn’t matter.

Even though Mr. Edelman is technically in the right, he did certain things the wrong way:

  • This is a small business—an “underdog” which does not have the deep pockets and resources of a large corporation to defend itself. This makes the public more likely to be sympathetic to the small business side. One tweet from the Time article, “Free advice to Ben Edelman. Hire a food taster, like despots used to do.” If you’re going to battle a small business, being a rather privileged person will further contrast you from the person you’re trying to beat.
  • If you’re going to nitpick, be right about every detail. It turns out that damages must be at least $25 for tripling a refund. There’s nothing like being a pompous so-and-so to prompt others to fact-check your claims. Demanding to triple the difference in a refund (which is how a demand for a $4 refund turned into $12) just isn’t warranted according to his state law.
  • Someone who knows as much about the law as Mr. Edelman does would know that a jury is made of one’s peers, or at least, “average Joes” who decide how a reasonable person should behave. Mr. Edelman is clearly behaving in a way that differs from what a normal person would do. (Most normal people aren’t Harvard staff members with a consulting practice and would be overjoyed to trade places with Mr. Edelman for just one day.) Most normal people would be annoyed, and if a phone call with management does not bring the desired result (of a refund or at least an explanation), an average Joe would tweet or Yelp about it. In fact, many people have taken to twitter and Yelp over this matter. The restaurant’s Yelp page has received many 5-star ratings from its loyal fanbase, including insults to Mr. Edelman. The court of public opinion has found Mr. Edelman guilty of being a… well, some people tweet it, but this website just isn’t the sort of place where such language will be repeated

Acting like a (insult redacted) by threatening legal action against what could be an honest mistake could have the effect of reflecting poorly on one’s employer if they’re less established. Even if this incident does not lower the opinion of Harvard, it is irritating to co-workers. Dr. Ed (@ICUDrEd) tweeted, “It’s totally great that every tweet about Ben Edelman prominently mentions @Harvard. Thanks Ben.

How would one of Mr. Edelman’s co-workers react if passed up for a promotion in favor of him? What would that do to workplace morale?

But there might not be such a concern for his employer—Mr. Edelman is not just an associate professor, as Boston.com reports, he is also runs a consulting firm which boasts high profile clients; Fortune 500 companies such as:

“Microsoft, the NFL, The New York Times and Universal Music on “preventing and detecting online fraud (especially advertising fraud),” his website states. He also graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and has a doctorate in economics from Harvard University, as well as a law degree from Harvard Law School.”

He may have done this, hoping it would go viral, in order to highlight his knowledge of the law and how he will fight, tirelessly, over the smallest details. Perhaps he is thinking that current and prospective clients will hear of his tenacity and think, “What a great job he would do for us! He is willing to fight to the point of absurdity on every possible detail. Just look at how he spends his free time!”

Yet, it would seem that anyone who has a doctorate in Economics would know a bit about opportunity cost. As tweeted by Andrew Exum: “In other news, it’s possible to attain a PhD in Economics from Harvard and not really understand ‘opportunity cost.’”

Even the harassed restaurant owner says this:

“I apologize for the confusion, you seem like a smart man, But is this really worth your time?”

And on Slate, author Jordan Weissmann noted, “It is a fact widely acknowledged in the legal profession that it is basically pointless going to law school unless you later use your hard-won knowledge to terrorize a small family-owned business over a minor customer-service transgression.”

So if nitpicking was how he hoped to go viral, it worked. He has worked for high-profile clients, and never achieved such notoriety until working on a personal matter. If this was a calculated move, it was done because it is far easier to become well-known for fighting for consumer rights by picking on the little guy than winning a court battle against a large corporation.

So, Mr. Edelman did get some measure of fame from this incident which had eluded him in his professional life. He protected consumers by exposing a Facebook privacy leak, but quibbling over a few dollars on a restaurant bill is likely what he will be known for. It will take many years of positive news to outweigh results if a prospective client googles Mr. Edelman.

Despite this, Harvard will continue to be known for many other reasons; its brand can handle many other negative news stories about its staff. With its prestigious background, the brand will remain intact, even with many other such similar incidents from fussy staff members. Staff members won’t quit over having to work with this man, and it would take many more incidents to make someone want to leave a position at Harvard. But unless  you have a presence like Harvard, can you weather a negative story about an employee that goes viral? Granted, the brand makes the news more than the individual’s name, but even small businesses and start-ups get bad press by employee misdeeds which go viral. The “Dongle debacle” is one such incident in which employees in both sides of an unpleasant interaction lost their jobs.

Protect your brand by hiring employees that fit and further your brand’s image. Contact INSPIRE for smart hiring and employee training for your small business.

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