Retail

Yelp’s Internal Business Becomes Everybody’s Business

Social media: It’s good for consumer feedback, trend spotting, sharing feel-good brand content, even announcing new products and running special deals and promotions. Some companies use it to deliver impeccable customer service, while others use it as a showcase for their celebrity endorsements. But what about discussing one’s internal HR decisions?

This past week, Yelp got a healthy dose of customer feedback around an unexpected issue: the firing of one of its hourly employees. As the CEO rushed to temper the social fires, he may have only helped to pour gasoline on them. Along the way, the glow of those burning Twitter comments may help to shed light on the new phenomenon of internal business decisions becoming hot topics among your customers.

So, what happened at Yelp? It was actually Eat24, a somewhat newly acquired brand within the Yelp portfolio that offers a food delivery app. The brand is known for the sardonic wit it dispenses in its email and social communication with customers. By many accounts, it does an effective job of keeping things light and breezy.

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However, what Eat24 hasn’t been doing is paying its San Francisco-based hourly employees an hourly wage, at least, according to one member of its customer support team. Talia Jane posted an open letter to Yelp Cofounder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman on Medium. In her essay, she complained about her low take-home pay, the high cost of a 30-mile commute, a heating bill that forced her to stop using her heater altogether and the general struggles of a millennial trying to make it in San Francisco’s tech valley.

She had some fair points: San Francisco rents are expensive, and a $733.24 biweekly paycheck, Re/code reported, may not be enough to make ends meet. Although, as some Twitter responders pointed out, Jane could get a roommate to save on rent, and plenty of people go to bed at night in several layers of blankets, wool sweaters and socks. Maybe she was complaining a little loudly for some people’s tastes, but her points were, to varying degrees, valid.

While her article was starting to get traction on Medium, things really picked up when Jane posted an update to her Twitter account a few hours later, stating that her corporate email account had been frozen and that she believed she had been fired. As Jane later recounted in a statement to Gawker, she reached out to her manager, who didn’t have any information on her being let go and promised to look into it and call her back. By the time he did, he had an HR representative on the phone with him, and the writing was on the wall for Talia.

Twitter lit up. Well, at least, in San Francisco, where the topic was trending on Twitter at one point.

A few hours later (which is approximately 3,000 years in Twitter time), Stoppelman himself took to the social airwaves to rebuff accusations that Jane had been fired for being vocal about her low pay but rather due to other internal factors.

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According to his final tweet in the five-tweet thread, a round of layoffs for the customer support team in San Francisco had already been planned, with resources being reallocated to a support team in Arizona, where the cost of living is dramatically lower.

The responses to Stoppelman’s comments were mixed, as is to be expected with any public debate. But the bigger point of interest here is that this internal affair was a public debate at all. How many of a company’s business decisions are open for debate among their customers on social media? The answer to that question may be moving ever closer to “all of them.”

The idea of customer backlash against corporate entities for their business practices is not a new trend, and some corporate accountability for environmental pollution, sourcing of materials and safety of employees are all certainly viable topics of discussion. But the timing of the firing of an employee?

Starbucks came under fire when its employee scheduling practices and the negative impacts they had on hourly employees were revealed in a New York Times article in 2015. The public backlash and in-depth investigative reporting were enough to make the company address its on-demand scheduling software and internal management practices.

But the issue here is one of perception, not facts supported by anything other than one person’s personal account. The matter of paying non-livable wages, as Stoppelman points out, was one already being addressed, albeit by the company moving its support team to Arizona. Not great news for Jane or the rest of the employees impacted by that decision, but a rational reaction to the realities at hand. Can Yelp be expected to take responsibility for the cost of living (that arguably companies like theirs have helped to drive up) in an entire geographic region or the fluctuating energy costs dictated by climate change, international relations and the rate at which natural resources can be pumped out of the Earth’s core? Not fairly.

Then again, who ever said the Internet was fair? It’s a hotbed of opinion, where customers arguably wait for an opportunity to tell the companies they patronize exactly what they think of them. B2C brands have learned to tread lightly, apologize quickly and change the topic of conversation swiftly in the face of a brewing social media crisis.

Timing is everything, and Yelp’s wasn’t very good in this instance. At best, the sequence of events seems suspicious, and even if there was no foul play, it was unfortunate. It certainly doesn’t help to improve the company’s public image, but that’s not one that is untarnished at this point either. Yelp has taken its share of punches in the court of public opinion.

Perhaps it has learned an important lesson with this latest incident: No action taken within the company has any guarantee of not becoming part of its consumer-facing persona. With every employee (disgruntled or otherwise) having a mobile phone and 12 social network profiles at his or her disposal, customers are just a tweet away.

However, all that vocal social backlash is not necessarily doomed to negatively affect the company monetarily. It’s more likely that the social herd will move on to the next trending topic.

Case in point, as of last night (Feb. 21), “nice car interiors” was trending in the Bay Area. We suspect those residents will be back to ordering their Kung Pao chicken in no time.

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