Monday, January 26, 2009

When Social Media Goes Bad - Maybe? Tesco and Waitrose Store Workers in the UK Use Facebook Sites to 'Diss' Store Customers

In this piece yesterday [Twitter Me This Batman: Are You Using Twitter? If Not, You Probably Should Be], we discussed the power for grocers (and others) of using social media and social networking Web sites like Twitter and FaceBook, as well as the use of such sites by a growing number of food and grocery retailers.

But like all new and powerful tools, particularly digital ones, there's also a potential downside to the use of social networking sites by grocers, individuals and other businesses.

Two reports out of the United Kingdom last week make this fact abundantly clear.

The first incident involves our very own (in the sense that we write about it) Tesco, which owns and operates Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in the Western U.S. A number of UK newspapers, including the Daily Mail and UK Telegraph, reported last week that Tesco corporate executives are investigating an incident in which a number of Tesco store-level employees posted abusive comments about store customers on a "Tesco" discussion forum on the Facebook social networking Web site.

Here are a few of the Facebook comments made by the about 60 Tesco store workers from the story in the UK Daily Mail:

>"Rob Richardson, from Newcastle, moaned about shoppers ‘who keep coming to find you ... even though there’s 20 other staff members about to help them find something’. His reaction? ‘Give me your damn shopping list, you senile old cow, and I’ll do your shopping for you. Just leave me alone!’"

>"One (Tesco store worker), who identified himself (on the Tesco Facebook forum) as Benjamin Clarke, from Leeds, wrote: ‘I had a guy on Saturday ... who complained about the prices of the reduced mini cucumbers from £1.29 to 64p. Hmmm, how expensive. Cheap ****!’He added: ‘I wish these f******s would just stay at home and shop online!"

>"Tesco worker Zara Ashley Earl objected to customers who put their money on the conveyor belt rather than in her hand.‘Do we have some kind of infection that you might catch??? Ignorant b******s ... And they think we are the stupid ones because we work at Tesco.’"

>"And, Tesco store employee Scott Harrop objected to having to serve ‘smelly ppl ... who make me feel sick’." [Note: A Tesco supermarket actually did recetly toss a customer out of a store for having a rather offending odor. Read about it here: Woman horse rider kicked out of Tesco store because she was 'too smelly'.]

None of the Tesco store employees posted the names of the customers on the Facebook page.

Fresh & Easy Buzz confirmed today with a Tesco spokesperson in the UK that the company is looking into the Facebook forum comments made by the store employees, saying the retailer is "taking the matter seriously."

Additionally, according to a Tesco spokesperson quoted in the UK Daily Mail's January 18 story: "A Tesco spokesman said: ‘Facebook is a popular and fun website but if some of our staff have gone too far, we will investigate and take appropriate action if necessary."

The Tesco employees' Facebook group calls itself "Tesco Employees Could Rule The World." It has about 2,000 members. Only about 60 of those 2,000 members made the remarks.

[Read the story, "Red faces at Tesco as dozens of staff post insulting comments about its customers on internet forum," here.]

And Waitrose too...

Ironically, at just about the same time the Facebook comments about customers made by the Tesco workers were discovered on the Web site, similar remarks made by store-level employees of Britain's leading upscale supermarket chain, Waitrose, also were discovered and reported on by the Daily Mail and UK Telegraph.

The Waitrose employees made similar deragatory comments about store customers on a Facebook forum called "Waitrose isn't a supermarket, it's a state of mind," which is a Facebook page devoted to social networking about the grocery chain.

According to a January 21 story in the UK Daily Mail, and another in the UK Telegraph, Waitrose executives are investigating offensive comments made by workers at the Finchley Waitrose store in London, England.

For example, one Waitrose employee called a female customer a "dirty old loon" and said on the Waitrose Facebook site: "You know, the one who you can smell in Fruit & Veg when she is on the drinks aisle," according to the Daily Mail report.

Another worker at the Finchley Waitrose store wrote of his lust for a regular female customer this way: "All the lads know who I mean. The 6ft tall stunner with the massive natural bristols and a boyfriend who looks like he might kill you for looking at her."

The Waitrose employee comments were in response to a question asked on the Website by a fellow store employee. That question asks store employees from Waitrose stores throughout the UK to list what annoys them most about the supermarket. [The Waitrose page was still up on Facebook today.]

In addition to the Waitrose employees of the Finchley Waitrose store that are being investigated by company brass, other store employees from throughout the UK added their own responses/comments to the Facebook question.

Below is what one of those Waitrose store employees, a worker from a store in Manchester, wrote in response to the question about what annoys him most about Waitrose:

His answer: the "Pikey skanks wait till the last minute, gathered around the reduced-stuff bin, or the cake shelves etc, to get the cheapest possible stuff."

Like the Tesco store employees, the Waitrose workers didn't use customer names in their postings either.

[You can read the full UK Daily Mail report: 'Mad, ugly pikeys': Now Waitrose workers use Facebook to insult their customers," here.]

Fresh & Easy Buzz Commentary:

The first basic question one would likely ask about these two situations is why the Tesco and Waitrose store employees used their real names in the posts? The answer is that most people sign up for Facebook using their real names. That's because it's a "friends-type" (like MySpace) social networking site in which people want to connect to each other, and businesses to real consumers, using their real names and identities rather than an assumed screen name. Also, when you post on Facebook you must use the name you signed up with -- your real name -- rather than being allowed to assume an anonymous handle for posting.

The deeper question is why these employees would post deragatory comments -- even general ones without using names -- about store customers when they know a wide-range of people, including their bosses, store customers and company officials, have access to the Facebook sites? But they are employee Facebook sites, and an employee did ask fellow employees what they dislike about the stores, after all.

We will save addressing that broader psychological and sociological question for another time. But we will suggest that for many people, especially those in their teens -to- mid-twnenties, Internet-based social networking is such a common thing that they think nothing about writing whatever is on their mind on their Facebook pages, or Facebook pages of others. It's similar to the question as to why so many folks post near-nude and completely nude pictures on their Facebook and MySpace pages. We will not attempt to answer either of those two questions today since we didn't plan on turning this into a ten thousand word essay. Perhaps we will address those questions another time.

But then again, they didn't use the names of customers. So is it really a big deal?

The good news is that in both the Tesco and Waitrose cases it was only a tiny percentage of the total users who posted the remarks. In reality probably no more, or even less, than would make such remarks verbally in public. The difference of course is that making such remarks verbally and in public would likelymean just a few people would hear them. But such remarks on popular social networking sites like Facebook can be read by millions, including ones bosses, the press and the store customers themselves.

It's really unchartered waters regarding what Tesco and Waitrose management should do, if anything, to these store-level workers. We aren't sure what we would do either. Since it's a first offense perhaps a strong warning will suffice. And, based on a couple inquiries, it appears that neither Tesco or Waitrose -- or most companies -- currently have a clear policy regarding employee postings on social networking sites, accept in terms of some that don't allow any access at all to the sites from the workplace.

It's also not clear legally if and in what ways employers can restrict what employees write on these sites. Employers can restrict access to the sites at work, of course. But what about from at home? After all that's likely where the store workers made the posts since it's not common to have access to a computer while working in-store.

For example, would it not infringe on an employee's free speech to prohibit her from writing while on the Facebook site at home that "she hates smelly customers," not mentioning those customers by name.? Or can an employer permit a store employee from commenting about his lust for a regular female shopper who frequents the store where he works? We think doing so by an employer would be legally difficult to do.

We do suggest that it's not a wise career move for employees to make even general comments like those made on Facebook about customers, particualrly on a Web site devoted to issues regarding the company they work for. Nor is it particularly good for the company's image, which is an image that should reflect on those who work for it and that they should in their behavior contribute to.

But then again, would the issue be viewed the same way if these employees were allowed to use anonymous screen names? After all, it is an employee Facebook forum. One would think that means employees should be allowed to vent on a wide range of subjects, right? Or should there be restrictions? And what about self-restraint? The viewing of Facebook forums can be restricted only to users. We don't know if the Tesco and Waitrose pages are restricted or open. But if not restricting them would be a simple soultion -- perhaps?

Meanwhile, all of those reading this who have ever worked in a supermarket can probably relate to the types of customers mentioned by some of the store workers. Supermarkets are among the most democratic of businesses. People from all walks of life frequent them. And every supermarket has its own cast of regulars -- and characters.

For example, there might be the eccentric retired man who comes in at least twice daily, sometimes perhaps in his PJ's, because he is lonely and loves interacting with the store employees and customers; the forty-something housewife who perhaps gets dressed up to the nines (including wearing a mini skirt skirt and high heels) to go grocery shopping, enjoying the attention she gets from the young male store employees; or the customer who's always complaining about store prices, telling the store workers how he or she can get this or that item at the supermarket down the street for much cheaper, but yet he keeps coming back into the "high-priced" store each week.

When supermarket employees get together it's not uncommon for them to compare notes on these "regulars." That's actually healthy behavior. But it's probably a good idea, when it comes to social networking sites, for supermarket workers to follow that old adage that you need not always say everything in public (or on a social networking site) that you're thinking --especially when that public is the vast one on Facebook.

But on the other hand, since the sites are "employee sites," why shouldn't the workers be able to offer whatever opinions they desire, especially if they avoid using the names of actual customers? It's not such a simple issue.

[Fresh & Easy Buzz welcomes your comments on the Tesco and Waitrose store employees and Facebook, along with any comments you have in general about the use of social networking sites by grocers and other businesses.

Are the Tesco and Waitrose store employees completely out of line in what they did? Or, do they have the right to their opinions on the Facebook pages? Readers, do chime in and offer your comments. We would particularly love to hear from current and past supermarket workers. Fresh & Easy Buzz has numerous Tesco Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market store-level workers who read us regularly. Please chime in as well. You can do so anonymously at the "comments" link below. We encourage all readers of the post to comment.

Just click the "comments" link below. Also, you can e-mail this post to friends and foes alike (yes, a form of social networking) by merely clicking on the little folder at left, below. When you do it gives you a "ready-to-e-mail" template. Just fill it in and click. Don't say anything abusive about us though in your e-mail comments...please:)]


Anonymous said...

The simple thing to do is to restrict the Facebook sites to just the employees. Of course if the sites are trying to reach consumers then that poses a problem. The Tesco Facebook page looks like it's for employees. The Waitrose one maybe is broader.

Anonymous said...

I think the picture of the Tesco worker Benjamin Clarke at the link to the Daily Mail story just might say all that's needed about the situation. At this link in your post:

[Read the story, "Red faces at Tesco as dozens of staff post insulting comments about its customers on internet forum," here.]

Anonymous said...

I wanted to discuss the Fresh and Easy store experience. I really would like to appreciate this format for what they are providing, but there's several issues that arise every time we go there.
-a feeling of sadness that surrounds our experience, we are not excited anymore once we are there.
-Their prepared food section reminds me of a hospital food store, and I know that they are trying very hard to make natural foods at low prices .When you look through a clear packaged food item and you have all the red sauce stock on the clear film, I'm sorry but that's really unappetizing and frankly kind of dirty.
I can go on forever, but that's for another day...

Anonymous said...

I agree about the sterile experience at Fresh & Easy. They need to create some excitement in the stores. Having the sampling station behind the counter (they call it the "Kitchen"), for example, instead of doing samples in the store aisle lends to this lack of excitement.

Many of the prepared foods items are still to salty. Some taste just plain bad, like the Tamale Bake.

Agree on some of the packaging too. Check out how unappealing the hummas looks as an example.

Anonymous said...

Having shopped in a few Waitrose stores in the UK on numerous ocassions, I'm surprised the gourmet emporiums allow one in without his wearing proper attire, let alone having an odor about him.