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Can employers sue online commenters for their negative feedback?

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While it is uncommon to see a restaurant boss react to a bad comment made on Openrice in Hong Kong and Singapore, trial attorney Philip Layfield and managing partner at Layfield & Barrett have filed a defamation claim against anonymous commenters on Glassdoor.

The comments in question describe Layfield & Barrett as “bad place to work” and cited the firm’s recent name change as a way to allegedly trick employees.

In addition to the defamation lawsuit, Layfield and his firm have served a subpoena to which seeks further details about the authors behind 12 of the comments left on the website.

The subpoena seeks the authors of the following 12 posts [sic]:

  • “Bad place to work (this company just changed its name) Research Layfield & Wallace”
  • “Deceptive, Unethical, Poorly Managed, No Sense of Direction”
  • “You will HATE working here – Please read all the reviews”
  • “Working Here is Psychological Torture”
  • “New Admitees Beware!”
  • “For the love of God, do NOT work here”
  • “Anyone who gives this place a full rating has literally just started working there.”
  • “Working for Philip J. Layfield (a.k.a. Philip S. Pesin) Was Pure Misery”
  • “Horrible place to work. Unreasonably cruel.”
  • “Phil Layfield Changed His Name from Phil Pesin for a Reason”
  • “Don’t let the name change fool you, read the reviews for Layfield & Wallace. This is Phil Pesin’s way of ‘starting fresh’”
  • “Layfield & Barrett, wallace or pesin STAY AWAY!!! BAD BOSS”

Many of these seem to have been taken down at present.

Above The Law reached out to Dawn Lyon, vice president of corporate affairs for Glassdoor for comments about Layfield’s request to identify the commenters.

“Occasionally, company management doesn’t like what employees and/or former employees have to say, and they attempt to sue Glassdoor and/or our anonymous users, often requesting that we divulge the identity of our anonymous user,” she said.

“It is our standard practice to fight on our users’ behalf to protect their anonymity and rights to free speech. If necessary, we vigorously fight in court to prevent any user information from being disclosed,” she added in her response to Above The Law.

Meanwhile Layfield responded firmly, saying his firm offers top dollars for talent, and blamed the bad reviews on employees unwilling to realise their shortcomings.

“The majority of these posts contain blatantly false information. We are going to obtain the identities of these cowards and bring them to justice,” he wrote in response.

“I would love to post information about employees who graduated law school, but can’t put two sentences together, or those that are sick at least one day every week,” he wrote.

Looks like a hard-fought legal battle is on its way.

Human Resources spoke to Hong Kong based experts to understand the implications of this unique case, and identify some lessons for employer branding.

Darren Tay, director of BTI Consultants, thinks Layfield & Barrett is doing itself more harm than good by filing such a high-profile case.

“By suing, I think the company is trying to save face instead of saving its employer branding. It will end up scaring talent away by prolonging the attention it gets for being a bad employer,” he said.

When dealing with negative comments, Tay urged employers to take a step and make an effort to examine the comments – although on most occasions they are not 100% correct, but there is some truth in them.

Employers should review their policies and look for improvement instead of going after people who made the comments.

Garrick Lau, associate director, managing director’s office; and head of talent acquisition and development, Hopewell Holding, who specialises in graduate recruitment and social media marketing for recruitment thinks it is too early to tell if the lawsuit will be helpful in repairing Layfield & Barrett’s employer branding.

“The resulting impact  would depend on whether the negative comments are based on solid facts,” he said. He added that Hopewell also refers to employer review sites as one of the sources to collect feedback, especially for listening to the younger workforce.

When there is a negative comment, Lau said the right thing to do is to look for constructive ways to understand and interact with the commenters, for continuous evaluation on the firm’s practices.

Image: Shutterstock

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