Preparation is key!

 How employers can prepare for public opposition to unpopular labor law measures.

Preparation is key!

There is no avoiding unpopular labor law measures, whether large or small. To prevent excessive damage to their public image, companies need to be thoroughly prepared for opposition in the public media.

Labor law measures are rarely popular

German labor law is generally employee-friendly. Naturally, employers also have access to labor law measures such as dismissals.

Measures like these are unpopular with the workforce, regardless of whether individual dismissals or mass layoffs. This is understandable given that livelihoods are at stake and labor law measures may not seem necessary or justified at first glance.

When employees vent their anger

Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that some of the employees affected feel free to vent their anger at their employer.

Whereas this anger used to generally remain contained within a small circle of employees, today’s social media provides the perfect platform for employees to express their displeasure with their employer in public.

Even then, a video or post may still only have a limited impact. However, if a post or video goes viral or is picked up by the press, a small video can explode into a real news story, carrying with it the corresponding risk damage to the company’s reputation.

Employees are allowed to make negative comments

Of course, employers would prefer that negative comments were never made in public at all.

Yet, a recent case before the Saxony State Labor Court has demonstrated that harsh public criticism of the employer is possible as long as the statements remain within the permissible scope of freedom of expression.

What actually works?

Taking legal action as a defense against negative public communication by the company’s own employees is often a fruitless endeavor when it comes to protecting the company’s reputation.

The right level of communication is often the more effective approach. If necessary, this can be combined with legal measures to protect the company’s reputation and prevent inappropriate negative communication by employees or the press.

How can this succeed?

  1. The first step consists of determining the potential damage to the company’s reputation caused by the planned labor law measure. The company needs to consider whether those affected may choose to express their opinions publicly, possibly with the goal of putting pressure on the company.
  2. If there is a significant potential for damage to the company, the first thing to consider is whether there are equally effective but less risky alternatives to the planned actions? If not, the company needs to take preventive measures to protect its reputation. This includes informing all of the necessary people ahead of time (HR, communications, and legal – the latter with a particular focus on protecting the company’s reputation).
  3. Prepare and coordinate the company’s own communication: Explain the measure in an easily understandable way and demonstrate why it is necessary. In other words, the company needs to present its own position in a way that all of the stakeholders can easily understand. This should also include communication with the media. Journalists regularly ask companies for a statement before publishing an article. This not only helps to shape the communicative narrative but also the legal framework.
  4. If there are internal repercussions (due to statements on the intranet, flyers distributed during industrial action, etc.), the labor law activities need to include and implement measures relating to the right of expression. Such activities not only consist of dismissals but also cease-and-desist orders, for example.
  5. External/media reactions: First and foremost, the company needs to consider and prepare legal measures to protect its reputation ahead of time. This enables the company to take preventive action, such as cease-and-desist orders relating to specific publications, and to bring action against unlawful statements which have been published through claims for injunctive relief, counter-statements or corrections.

Summary of the key facts:

  • Unpopular labor law measures can become a major source of media attention, which is why it is important to be prepared.
  • Labor law proceedings against employees due to public negative statements about the employer can fail or even backfire given the employees’ rights to freedom of expression.
  • Skillful communication and active legal measures to protect the company’s reputation, such as cease-and-desist orders relief and rectification claims, are also often effective means of counteracting damage to the company’s reputation.