Capitol riot underscores need to set standards for employee behavior

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//January 21, 2021

Capitol riot underscores need to set standards for employee behavior

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//January 21, 2021

The January 6 events at the nation’s Capitol Building could have a lasting impact on how much attention employers pay to employee behavior outside of work.

Since then, area companies have had to grapple with policies, procedures and how much or little supervision is appropriate in monitoring employee behaviors on and off the clock.

“We’re in a climate now where employers do actually have more control, or the ability to have oversight of someone, after hours,” said Rebecca Warren, an attorney and partner at Norris McLaughlin in Allentown.

Companies may consider their reputations and how employee behavior –especially high profile or newsworthy actions — can add or take away from the corporate name locally and globally, said Ozias A. Moore, a Lehigh University assistant professor of management.

“The growing demand in our society for corporate social responsibility…and how these issues are addressed from a global lens” is increasing, Moore said.

From undergraduates to business executives and PhD candidates, Moore said he prefers to address “these timely and relevant events.” He said the conversations range from the societal impact, changes in an organization’s design, strategy, structure and management.

The assault on the Capitol and aftermath may also prompt executives to rethink the behaviors they reward with bonuses or promotions, and to reconsider the kind of culture they want their employees to advance and embrace.

“I think people are viewing Washington as a different world” right now, said Randy Pedretti, owner and strategic partner at PrideStaff, an employment and staffing agency in Hanover Township, Northampton County.

While Pedretti isn’t “hearing any buzz right now” from employers in the Lehigh Valley, he said prolonged unrest could create a prolonged threat and prompt a new dynamic in the workplace.

On January 8 USA Today reported on individuals across the country who swiftly lost their jobs or resigned because of their participation at the riot and breaching of the Capitol building. Others have been placed on leave pending further investigation.

Former state Rep. Rick Saccone, who posted images of himself inside the Capitol on January 6, resigned from his position as adjunct professor from Saint Vincent College, a Roman Catholic Seminary in Latrobe, according to USA Today’s website.

New challenges

Adam Santucci, a labor and employment attorney and member partner at McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC in Harrisburg, said the coronavirus pandemic created new challenges in 2020 for many employers, among them setting expectations and regulating employee behavior in an online and largely remote environment.

The Capitol riots further tested an already coronavirus fatigued nation. Never before have more people worked remotely. Creating shared bonds and camaraderie through virtual spaces for employee engagement and education, while setting boundaries and rules for interactions, has largely fallen to employers to implement.

Those virtual water cooler and happy hour events aimed at bringing people together have also brought along questions about acceptable virtual workforce behaviors, Santucci said.

“If you are reinforcing your core values and code of ethics regarding professionalism, some contact that is out of bounds will be self-evident” if it occurs online or in person, he said.

One way to address behavioral challenges is to include a trained human resources moderator on virtual calls and interactions. Someone who can facilitate casual online meetings, establish boundaries if needed, and manage any activity that crosses a line.

“It’s all about being proactive, and about training and policy development,” Santucci said.

What about the First Amendment?

While employees might cry “First Amendment” rights to free speech when an employer brings up issues or problems, the law doesn’t apply the same way in the private sector, Santucci said. The Constitutional guarantees defined by the First Amendment are to prevent governmental interference with a citizen’s free speech, Santucci said.

The First Amendment also applies differently to those in the public sector. Private-sector employers can go much farther to stop disturbing or troubling behavior, including letting employees go, he said.

Pennsylvania, along with most states, has some form of “at will” employment law – which protects private companies when workers are dismissed. Montana is the only state that does not offer completely “at will” practices to employers.

“At will” employment also means an employer can fire any employee, at any time and for any reason. There are exceptions: workers have protections from discriminatory firings over race, sex, national origin or for being pregnant.

“The challenge is how to have meaningful conversation with our neighbors, our friends, families and in the workplace,” said Philip Bergey, an executive and leadership coach in East Hempfield, Lancaster County, and partner at Design Group International Inc.

Social Media

With the shift to a remote workforce, Norris McLaughlin’s Warren hasn’t heard a lot of concern about inflammatory comments or opinions by employees, yet. What she is seeing is an uptick in social media and the transmission of employee opinions over digital platforms. A lack of civility and eroding respect for other viewpoints has fewer natural stop gaps when conversations are not face-to-face, she said.

“It’s easier to advance your opinion in an impersonal electronic impact, than it is to do the same thing in person,” Warren said.

The pandemic prompted more employee handbook and policy reviews early in 2020 because of social distancing, safety mandates and working remotely. But Warren has had only a few requests for policy reviews because of the Capitol riot or its aftermath.

Warren cautioned if companies haven’t spent time recently reviewing what’s in writing, they should.

“They really should be looking at codes of conduct, harassment, social media, discrimination, and use of company technology,” Warren said.

Maintain accountability

While using company owned technology for non-work purposes is an easy call for employers to make, what happens on personal time with personal devices “muddies the waters.”

“Using your own laptop or cell phone and making personal comments or opinions, which may be viewed as offensive by other people – that’s the really difficult situation for an employer,” she said.

Warren said complaints about employees should be taken seriously, investigated and if company policies or laws are violated, prompt appropriate action should be taken. Clear, well communicated policies and expectations, as well as stated consequences, are vital to keeping employees in line with their employer’s expectations.

Holding others accountable for their actions “is the piece most people don’t talk about,” said Design Group International’s Bergey.

Ultimately a company’s culture or regulating behavior isn’t as simple as updating policies or writing employee handbooks, though those pieces are necessary elements in setting expectations and job performance standards.

“If the focus is on the human capital, then how do we involve them in the process” and ultimately make that investment in the bottom line? Asked Lehigh University’s Moore. Companies with long established values and cultures can be more enduring, during difficult times because they aren’t inherently rigid.

Those firms will provide space for workplace or employee appeals, or offer various ways for their employees’ voices and concerns to be acknowledged and heard, he said.

“Resilience is the word right now, [along with] how to create environments that encourage resilient people,” Bergey said.

In a crisis things that aren’t resilient, [they] snap and break,” Bergey said.